Shell Shock Oyster Bar and Grill reminds me of a really hot sports car: edgy, beautiful to look at and lots of attitude. The setting is cool, sleek and chic, with slate-colored walls, wood paneling and unadorned bulbs as lighting fixtures. Mirrored hexagons are placed like a molecular illustration against a back wall of dark blue. Inside seating is simple, almost stark, complemented by gray metal tables with wooden tops. Outside tables offer stylish pillows and IKEA blankets (labels still attached) in case the heat lamps are not up to snuff.
The front bar displays its bottles like works of art, marred only by three side-by-side flat-screen TVs that seem to be set to three different stations at all times. The sound is off (hooray), but the flickering images are jarring against such a classy setting. Another bar in the back features the real draw -- lots of oysters nestled in large bins of chipped ice, ready for their curtain call.
Oysters should be your first choice at Shell Shock, though that's not as simple as it sounds. Offerings change according to what's in season, and oysters are flown in daily for ultimate freshness. The current menu includes firm, sweet Kumamotos from Washington, tasty little Miyagis from Point Reyes, generous Pacifics from Washington and crisp Fanny Bays from British Columbia, plus some less common West Coast selections like Fat Bastards and Shigokus. Every oyster ($2.75-$3.75 each) tasted fresh from the ocean and needed only a squeeze of lemon to bring out its best.
Shell Shock takes the oyster experience to another level, with numerous concoctions that showcase an interesting balance of flavors and textures. Shooters feature raw oysters in champagne, beer, tequila, sake or vodka creations ($12-$19 for two), and grilled options marry oysters with barbecue sauce, cheese, bacon or salsa ($12-$16 for four). Though I'm more of a purist when it comes to sucking these morsels down, I tried the half-shell sampler: six of the restaurant's more popular prepared raw selections ($24). Winners were the Dare Devil with salmon roe, a quail egg and Sriracha hot sauce; the truffle hamachi with extra bite from diced jalapeño; and the prosciutto di Parma with a miniscule sliver of ham and pickled onion, all served on big meaty Pacifics.
But it's not all about bivalves here. Sandwiches like lobster rolls and oyster po' boys are offered at lunch, as well as salads and several variations of tacos with ahi tuna, soft-shell crab, steak or -- you guessed it -- oysters. A seared ahi rice bowl ($14) was generous but a bit bland, despite a tangy dipping sauce served on the side. Loaded with rice, cabbage, avocado and a poached egg, it was lovely to look at but underwhelming.
Appetizers were more exciting. Pigs on a Stick ($10) comprised four chunks of braised pork belly on long skewers with a truffle miso butter glaze so rich I wanted to lick the plate. Spicy chicken wings ($14) were battered, fried and dipped in a sticky glaze that was heavy on the sweet and very light on the spicy. Mini crab tacos ($11.95) were artfully arranged with chunks of fresh crab in crunchy but teeny-weeny shells. Hamachi shots ($12) were a knockout: two shot glasses loaded with small chunks of super-fresh yellowtail in a broth of cilantro and tart citrus ponzu juice. Add a dollop of wasabi and ... wow.
Dinners spotlight fish and seafood, with a classic cioppino ($15), steamed lobster ($44), fish and chips ($14) and miso-glazed Chilean sea bass over kale and jasmine rice ($34).
You can't talk about Shell Shock without talking about presentation. The hamachi shots came in a metal carry-all tray filled with ice; the oyster platter was presented on what looked like an oversized white porcelain cake stand. Each dish came glistening with colorful touches like a dab of roe, a golden quail egg, a smattering of peanuts or a sprinkle of chives.
Each dish I shared was a delight to look at, though some lost impact by being overwhelmed by too-large serving ware. Tables are set with rectangular white plates that seem to seldom be used by patrons sharing dishes. The oyster platter took over a small table for two. Function did not always seem to follow form.
An irreverent vibe comes across in the names of the menu offerings, with cocktails called Ladykiller, Shameless, Rude Boy, Little Geisha Girl and Booty Call, and food options named Break an Egg, A-Salt and Battered, Elvis Pigsley and Blood Bath. Someone had a good time coming up with these.
Shell Shock offers quite a few enticements to keep the crowds coming. A generous happy hour starts at 4:30 p.m. and picks up again after 9 p.m. with specials on cocktails and oysters.
The restaurant, which opened in early December, has a lot going for it but still needs a little tweaking. Multiple dishes arrived at the same time despite our request to stagger the meal. Some oysters were marred by chips of shell. Service was inconsistent: One afternoon, the attention was well-timed and solicitous; another visit had us practically begging for the bill.
Shell Shock is a visual treat, and its menu is fun and fresh, both in content and attitude. It's a great addition to Castro Street and fills a culinary niche too long neglected in the area. Go ahead and give it a spin.
Shell Shock Oyster Bar & Grill
124 Castro St., Mountain View