Let’s face it: People do not go to Napa Valley to eat clam chowder. If chowder is your thing you’ve probably got your GPS set for the New England seacoast or the classic Grand Central Oyster Bar in Manhattan. Or in California, San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.
Nevertheless, wine country does have a first-rate place for chowderheads: Hog Island Oyster Bar in Napa’s Oxbow Public Market just across the First Street Bridge on the east side of the river. After a hard day’s work of imbibing wine at wineries—which is, after all, why most people do go to Napa Valley—a tasty bowl of Manila chowder may be just the thing for you.
Hog Island’s chief claim to fame is its fresh oysters, which it grows and harvests in the cold and fertile waters of Tomales and Humboldt bays in California, and Discovery Bay in Washington. These bay-to-table oysters—Pacific Sweetwaters, Kodomos, Kumamotos and others— are served in restaurants around the U.S., including Hog Island eateries in San Francisco and Napa.
The day we went, we had happily indulged ourselves at a tasting and were in the mood for something that might ground us a little bit, something robust and filling yet also tasty. We wandered around the shops and restaurants of the public market before settling on Hog Island. It turned out to be an inspired choice.
Its atmosphere is casual and relaxed, with bar seating and tables as well as an outdoor patio that overlooks the river. A rustic-looking dinghy hangs suspended from the ceiling. The menu offers a variety of oysters, grilled and not, clams on the half shell, a delicious seafood stew and local Dungeness crab served chilled or roasted with garlic and jalapeno relish. Prices are fairly reasonable—$14, for example, for the clam chowder.
The chowder was a revelation. If what you are expecting is a standard-issue boilerplate chowder, be prepared for a surprise, for the clams are not buried in the soup but served still in their shells. My bowl boasted a plentitude of them too—nine, by my count. Nor was the soup thick and gooey. Instead, the clams were perched atop a light and creamy broth with seasoned vegetables, bacon and chunks of potatoes.
After such a soul-satisfying bowl of chowder, you may be revived enough to go out and do some more wine tasting. Hog Island Oyster Bar, 610 1st Street, Napa. No reservations. Hours Mon.11:30 a.m.-6 p.m., Tues.-Sun. 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m. 707-251-8113.
This article also ran on Examiner.com. Click HERE if you would like to read it on that website.