Of Pandemic and Plants

January 24, 2022

“HOLIDAY” MENU – DEC 24, 2021

“I had a feeling I would like the food. But I didn’t know I would like it this much.”

My mouth confessed those sheepish words to Chef Rob Rubba on December 11, 2020 after concluding my first sit-down dinner at Oyster Oyster. I had just eaten his incredible plant-forward tasting menu, the kind of rare meal that began with pleasant surprise, built delightful momentum with each successive course, and ended with stupefaction. It turned my mind into a Category-5 gale of emotions. So a terse, two-sentence review was the best I could muster, but it was enough to capture honest admiration. Not only was the food delicious, it had left me feeling invigorated. Exhilarated, too. Much like the onset of chilly weather that evening, I had a palpable sense that something riveting had arrived in Washington, DC.

Before that experience, I had harbored the notion that vegetarian cuisine was—to be perfectly blunt—simply boring. I saw it as niche dining designed for difficult, insufferable people who could afford to be picky living in a first-world country. Or vegetarianism was mostly a lifestyle pursued by ascetics devoted to a greater cause like animal welfare. To imagine eating vegetarian food was to visualize plates of raw, tasteless vegetables devoid of any flavor or character. I would envision leafy vegetables cooked down until they became an unidentifiable mass, just more lifeless and unappetizing than its initial form. In other words, vegetarian cuisine was not something to be enjoyed. One had to endure and suffer through it.

Or so I thought until Oyster Oyster made me concede happily in defeat. Through a procession of eight lovely courses of mostly vegetables, spanning ninety blissful minutes, I experienced some of my most delightful dining moments to date.

The tasting menu began with a freshly harvested Hakurei turnip. Its raw body was encircled by a curious white strip later revealed to be turnip from an earlier season. The root vegetable that comprised the turnip string had been pickled and preserved since the Spring, allowing months of fermentation to impart a nice tangy note to the fresh, crunchy bite.

Next came a thick slice of courgette de nice served underneath a radicchio bouquet. The squash had been carefully roasted until its flesh became tender and sweet like cantaloupe, its bleached-orange color accentuated by the light of the nearby dancing flames keeping me warm.

The third course consisted of a trio of Maryland oysters. Each was covered by a puree of salsify and topped with oyster leaf which enhanced the oysters’ briny flavor. I slurped them down without pausing for breath. (Though I had not anticipated eating any animal protein, I was aware oysters would be an option as the name of the restaurant reflects both the specific mushroom and the environment-friendly shellfish.)

At lesser restaurants, bread service is often an afterthought and the singular component that can make one forgetful, if not regretful, of the meal. Oyster Oyster served an excellent boule that made chewing a delightful activity. In between toothy mouthfuls, I refreshed my palate with a sensational mushroom and ginger broth. The warm drink came packed with so much umami flavor that even a bone broth probably could not have matched.

At that point, I was swooning, alternating between perfect contentment and a yearning for more. Still to come was a whole onion, roasted tender until its outer layer sweated and glistened, beckoning me to indulge. Stuffed inside was a medley of earthy mushrooms foraged from the surrounding areas. The last savory course consisted of an oblong portion of celeriac made from ribbons of the hearty winter vegetable, rolled and shaped to resemble a cut of steak. It was accompanied by a concentrated jus that emulated a steak sauce albeit one made from the reduction of—if you haven’t guessed at this point—a dozen vegetables!

Suffice to say, my meal that evening was revelatory. I came to realize that vegetables could be amazing. That plant-based foods do not need to be categorized as vegetarian or vegan cuisines. That labels can carry ignorant connotations, and often do. That when you encounter very good food, you can call it for what it really is—just great.

Like other new restaurants whose openings coincided with the start of the pandemic in March 2020, Oyster Oyster had pivoted to offering takeout with sandwiches, salads, and pizzas. Their to-go format operated for at least the next six months before a second pivot made outdoor dining available.

Fast forward to the present date. The pandemic has prolonged, bolstered in part by the contagious omicron variant rampaging across the country. Vaccines are widely available though herd immunity has yet to be achieved. The restaurant and hospitality industry remains battered and its future uncertain. The litany of ongoing challenges—a nationwide staffing shortage, supply chain issues, and the uneven enforcement of masks, social distancing, and proof of vaccination—has exacerbated many establishments to the breaking point. Many restaurants have closed forever.

Despite the difficulties of 2021, Oyster Oyster has remained committed to executing and serving remarkable food every week. The kitchen team has expanded with two new members, Liz and Vincent. Menus continue to rotate seasonally as well as intra-seasonally to take full advantage of the best produce from local farms.  Karma, Moon Valley, and Root and Marrow are just three purveyors that regularly supply Oyster Oyster with quality products.

My visits over the past year have accumulated to nearly a dozen by now; I have enjoyed every experience immensely. Each time, the creativity and inventiveness of how plants, locally foraged mushrooms, and Chesapeake oysters are utilized here dazzle without a single misstep. I have relished, sometimes repeatedly, a variety of heirloom wonders such as Bolero and Kyoto carrots, Castelfranco radicchio, Tetsukabuto and Yokohama squashes, Purple Top turnips, and Red Ace beets. I have marveled at delicious sauces and accompaniments made from seeds, often ground to the consistency of a thick paste. At times, I have debated internally whether to slather the last precious piece of vegetable-infused bread with the nutty sauce or the equally addictive marigold “butter”. Yes, I have become that person with the first-world problem. If the mockery is now directed my way, then I gladly accept it.

From the menus of more recent months, I have deeply enjoyed plopping spheres of celeriac root, deep-fried with a center of smoked tofu, into my eager mouth. And I have indulged in the delicious “schnitzel” again and again, twice made from eggplant and the third time from a wild Oyster mushroom. When salivating over a pecan mousse that stunningly, though unintentionally, replicated a liver pâté with its unctuous mouthfeel, I have reminisced about Rob’s previous stint at Hazel when he would serve zucchini bread with a foie gras mousse. But in light of the superb cooking Chef delivers now, I do not miss his past efforts, as good as they were.

I am not alone in my praise. Numerous local and national accolades have accumulated since June of last year. Oyster Oyster has been featured multiple times in the Washington Post and Washingtonian magazine. Nationally, Esquire magazine and the Michelin Guide have lauded them. More recognition this year is practically a certainty.

Yet, there is still new growth for this restaurant. The oyster bar has yet to open. An extended tasting menu may be offered there, perhaps when masks are no longer required for indoor dining. Might weekend lunch service resume at some point? (The short-lived but memorable “Ploughman’s Lunch” was offered briefly. It was an interpretation of a classic farmer’s lunch serving fresh bread, cultured butter, local cheese, and fermented and raw vegetables. Though simple in presentation, it was tasty and fulfilling.) I would certainly advocate for its return.

However Oyster Oyster proceeds in this new year, whatever their next steps, their upward trajectory has only begun. Their ethos of local, sustainable, and seasonal food is more than a mantra; it’s a way of life for this restaurant. Even the menu provided at the end of the meal can be planted. I will continue showing up and supporting their efforts. Because despite this unpredictable pandemic, I can be certain of at least one thing. At the conclusion of every visit, much like my momentous first meal, I will leave feeling renewed and thinking assuredly, “Brilliant brilliant.”


COURSE NAMES (L to R, top to bottom)

1) Stuffed Sweet Onion – mushroom ragout, radish

2) Spring Sprouts – radish, blossoms, sauce of oysters

3) Roasted Bolero Carrots – benne, fennel, sorghum

4) Lion’s Mane Mushroom – wild garlic, black-eyed peas

5) Salad of Brassicas – peppers, fennel, pecan mousse

6) Early Summer Corn – filet bean, potato, chilled peanut broth

7) Poached Kohlrabi – Chanterelle mushroom, fennel-chile ragout, fresh cheese

8) Summer Squash – Lion’s Mane, bean, sauce of seeds and spring onions

9) Eggplant Schnitzel

10) Melon – peanut, sugar kelp, shiso, oyster

11) Tomato – grapes, nasturtium, terra-cotta

12) Earth – mushrooms, truffle, potato

13) Eggplant – fennel kraut, red onion jam

14) Fig – verbena, pecan, spruce tips

2 thoughts on “Of Pandemic and Plants

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