Diners at Saltwater Oyster Depot last Friday, grazing on delectable plates, might not have know that the man with the sweating forehead and light-wash blue jeans who was shucking the night’s bivalves and arranging them on rock salt also owns the establishment, which this month is celebrating its one-year anniversary.
Luc Chamberland, who made his way through an array of West Marin food outfits in a variety of positions, has helped to reignite cultural life in downtown Inverness, where over the past year tourists and locals alike have become enthusiastic patrons of his restaurant.
Aided by chef Ryan Cantwell and pastry chef Kerry Deehan, Mr. Chamberland offers fare that is locally sourced, unpretentious and nourishing. And Saltwater not only advances the art of California coastal cuisine: it cultivates a community presence through philanthropy.
Mr. Chamberland received his start at Manka’s Inverness Lodge in 1989, spending seven years working his way up from waiter to dining room manager. “That was when the farm-to-table movement began in earnest,” he said, his brawny presence belied by his soft-spoken, thoughtful voice.
For another seven years he manned his own abalone farm in Tomales Bay, and he worked at Hog Island Oyster Company for four more years as a managing partner. He also spent a couple years as the general manager at Nick’s Cove, in Marshall.
But like many who work in the restaurant business long enough, Mr. Chamberland’s own ideas began to take hold. “I always dreamed of having a tiny restaurant that was rustic and prepared food that was tasty and delicious, but not pretentious,” he said.
Mr. Chamberland himself was anything but pretentious behind the bar on Friday. He chatted with customers between serving oysters, deftly mixing up a sweet mignonette of shallots, pepper, lemon and sparking wine. He was perhaps busier than usual; one waiter suspiciously noted that another had called off on that particularly balmy evening.
A substantial weekend crowd descends on Saltwater, especially in the summer months, eagerly awaiting the latest in the restaurant’s succinct, revolving-door menu.
Last week the intimate dining room was full of satisfied banter and wine-tinged gesticulations over the concrete bar and zinc-topped tables. Diners whet their appetites on crusty French bread and a delicate, fruity olive oil.
While the provenance of oysters ($3 a piece) changes often, Friday offered minerally oysters from Little Shemogue Bay in New Brunswick, Canada. Oysters from Hog Island’s farm in Discovery Bay, Washington were also deliciously briny. Big, sweet, creamy ones came from seed grown at a tiny operation in Tomales Bay, Starbird Mariculture, and were this diner’s personal pick.
“I like mixing it up a bit so people can have a taste of oysters from different bodies of water,” Mr. Chamberland said.
Saltwater has its own cooperative shellfish farm, Pickleweed Point Oyster Company, in Tomales Bay, which is still in an educational stage. But, Mr. Chamberland said, he hopes to fetch an aquaculture lease by the end of the year so he can begin farming.
While oysters are typically paired with white wine, this diner prefers red. The big, viscous 2009 Thomas Fogarty Cabernet Sauvignon ($12 a glass) was deeply gratifying. The wine menu includes about a dozen bottles as well as eight others on tap. “Pretty cutting edge,” commented Leroux Prater, a waiter and shucker.
The taps are more environmentally friendly than energy-intensive bottles, said Mr. Chamberland, as the latter must be produced, corked, labeled, packaged, distributed and recycled. The taps use stainless steel kegs that Saltwater reuses, and they are also hermetically sealed. In contrast, bottles of leftover wine might oxidize too much to be used the next day.
For those seeking brews to accompany their meals, Saltwater offers a small selection of taps mostly from the North Coast Brewing Company, a microbrewery in Fort Bragg. The Belgian-style saison ale ($7) was refreshingly sour and citrusy.
Next up was a salad of bitter arugula and Meyer lemon dressing ($10), which was adorned with sugared pecans and a spreading hint of cayenne. Afterward, a small but filling bowl of bright purple chunks of naked squid—an animal most people know in its encrusted, deeply fried state as calamari—was springy but surprisingly tender atop a bed of farro, olives and verdant broccolini ($16). Though chunks of violet tentacles brought home the cephalopod’s seaward origins, the flavor was pleasingly mellow.
The final dish, a narrow, thick cut of anatomically pink salmon, came with a top crust of crispy, salty skin ($27). Beneath it a perfect circle of comforting sweet-potato puree was tossed with pieces of just-cooked snow peas.
The selection of a dessert from among three options came with some degree of angst. One sunny waitress strongly recommended the brownie ice cream sandwich, though ultimately a sprawling orange curd bar ($9), served beneath Chantilly cream and atop a dense, buttery cookie crust, nabbed the order.
Mr. Chamberland’s desire to shirk any sense of pretension extends not only to food, but to the unique ways in which Saltwater reaches out to the surrounding community.
In the past year, for a small fee, Saltwater has lent its kitchen and wait staff to 10 organizations for ticketed benefit dinners. “I know that a lot of restaurants donate and are very generous. If local organizations want to raise money, you get a donation for a dinner for two,” Mr. Chamberland said. “But I just wanted to do a different approach, where we actually hosted events and allowed the organizations to come and talk about what they do and be the recipients of the proceeds for the evening.”
Those 10 events have generated about $18,000, and Mr. Chamberland aims to help raise $25,000 in the coming year. Slow Food Marin will host the next event, on July 23.
Mr. Chamberland’s concern for community also extends to the people who help make the restaurant tick. He received $100,000 in crowd funding to start up, and employs about 20 local people, about half full-time and half part-time, making the restaurant a significant employer in the area. “Being part of the fabric of the community is extremely important to me,” Mr. Chamberland said.
Saltwater Oyster Depot is located at 12781 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, in Inverness. Summer hours are 4 to 9 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sundays and 5:30 to 9 p.m. on Mondays.