The World Is Our Oyster

How the salty jewels in our region’s culinary crown found a starring role on menus from the Northern Neck to Virginia Beach

by Marisa Marsey | Mar 1, 2023

Big Island Oysters at Waypoint Seafood & Grill in Williamsburg. Photo by Jacqui Renager Performance Foodservice Virginia

T-shirts and wild pony stickers may suffice as souvenirs for many Chincoteague vacationers, but not Salvatore Deluca and Valeria Sartor, husband-wife owners of MVD, a restaurant in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, fastidious about sourcing and sustainability. It had to be Virginia oysters.

Pictured above: Big Island Oysters from the York River, served at Waypoint Seafood and Grill in Williamsburg (Photo by Jacqui Renager Performance Foodservice Virginia)

SEE ALSO:
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“They thought they were far superior oysters,” says Caitlin Hart, Director of Marketing at Cherrystone Aqua-Farms based in Cape Charles. “They started ordering from us so they can bring Virginia, specifically the Shore, to their restaurant patrons.”

Those patrons are food savvy, according to Deluca. “When they taste an exceptional product, they appreciate it,” he says from landlocked northeast Pennsylvania where he and Sartor, MVD’s chef, serve Cherrystone’s Chincoteague Salts, Little Bitches, Misty Points and Watch House Points. “We enjoy how different locales lend a unique character to each oyster.”

NORTHERN NECK. The celebrated Rappahannock Oyster Company sells its Rochambeaus and Olde Salts in all 50 states as well as serving them at their restaurants, including Merroir Tasting Room in Topping.

The celebrated Rappahannock Oyster Company sells its Rochambeaus and Olde Salts in all 50 states and at its restaurants, including Merroir Tasting Room in Topping. (Photo courtesy of Rappahannock Oyster Co.)

They’re not the only restaurateurs to be smitten by the variety of bivalves from this corner of the world, blessed by the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay. Chefs in New York, California, even Hong Kong, are showcasing Virginia oysters. Just what makes them so special? Ask Will Smiley, resident ecologist at the gracefully sprawling Tides Inn in Irvington (wow, how many resorts have a resident ecologist?), and he’ll whip out a map.

“The biggest variables impacting oysters are water temperature and salinity,” he says, pointing out that in Maine, it’s cold, so oysters grow slowly and develop a hard shell while in Florida’s warmer waters, they grow faster resulting in brittle shells.

Photo BY MISTY SAVES THE DAY courtesy of First Landing Seafood Company.

Oysters being harvested for First landing Seafood Company in Virginia Beach (Photo by Misty Saves the Day)

Now, he says, picture where you are when you’re between the two. Hello, Virginia, the sweet spot where oysters grow neither too fast nor too slow. Our shells are just right. “And, we have the highest diversity of oysters in one area because the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries have all these different salinities,” he says. Those from the fresh water of the James River are less salty than their bolder, brinier cousins harvested at the mouth of the Bay.

In all, oysters thrive in eight distinct Coastal Virginia regions, producing a remarkable spectrum of oyster personalities and validating the Commonwealth’s claim as “Oyster Capital of the East Coast.” (Fitting, anyway, since practically all from the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. and Canada are Crassostrea Virginica; their scientific name screams Virginia!)

The Virginia Oyster Trail defines the regions (VirginiaOysterTrail.com), and it’s well worth wending your way from the “Upper Bay Western Shore” (known for dulcet oysters) down to “Lower Bay Eastern Shore” (all about salt and cream) then over to “Seaside” (a slap of the sea softening into sweet butter) and points in-between to savor one-of-a-kind restaurants, inns and shops, and chat up seasoned watermen and accomplished artisans.

If you’re pressed for time, though, head to The Tin Cup Kitchen + Oyster Bar in the Delta Hotels Virginia Beach Bayfront Suites for a quickie, CliffsNotes version. A giant wall graphic summarizes the story of Virginia oysters and if it’s tourist season, you can order a tower stacked with glistening oysters on the half shell representing each of the eight regions.

Mikey Maksimowicz, chef-owner of Casa Pearl in Williamsburg, explains that an oyster is flavored not only by its location but also, “By the last gulp of water it tasted before it’s harvested. So, if you harvest with the incoming tide, it will be brinier than the outgoing tide.”

The Northern Neck native’s restaurant, in a renovated Texaco station, revels in his twin obsessions: tacos and oysters. In its early days, tacos were the clear front-runners but over the past four years, oysters have tipped the popularity scale. He goes through at least 5,000 local oysters a week in shooters and chowders, char-grilled and in a hybrid po-boy taco.

His favorite rendition is his raw bar’s “Oysters and Pearls,” Minnie Pearl oysters served with a seasonal, sorbet-like granita and a punctuation of trout caviar. He buys the small oysters, mild in salinity with a slightly sweet, grassy finish, directly from Cappahosic Oyster Company on the York River in Gloucester.

“They’re raised with such love and care,” Maksimowicz says. “They’re floated on top and tumbled throughout the growing process so they develop deep cups to hold the liquor.”

Fish Hawk Oyster Bar

Counter service at Fish Hawk Oyster Bar at The Tides Inn in Irvington (Photo courtesy of The Tides Inn)

Raising Shell

Tumbling, kind of like pruning, strengthens shells and improves their shape. To tumble or not to tumble is among the choices oyster farmers make.

They also opt to grow oysters at the bottom of the water or suspended near the surface in protective containers like bags or cages (aka oyster condos), each decision designed to craft a unique product.

“Like winemakers or brewers,” says Bill Walton, Acuff Professor of Marine Science at Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS). Most of the oysters you eat nowadays in restaurants are farm-raised, which are a whole different kettle of fish than, well, farmed fish.

The latter raise red flags because some contain contaminants and can harm the environment. Not so with shellfish aquaculture.

“Oyster farmers work with the environment to get the best growth and survival,” explains Walton. Farmed oysters rely on natural food in the water, growing the same way wild oysters do. “Essentially, they’re taking care of them with Mother Nature,” he adds.

By easing demand for wild oysters and helping clean the Chesapeake Bay (oysters filter up to 50 gallons of water a day), farm-raised, one of the most sustainable protein sources on the planet, have contributed to an increase in the wild population.

That’s what prompted Tom Mooney, owner of Murphy’s Irish Pubs in Virginia Beach and Alexandria, to start oyster farming from his Back Creek property off Tangier Sound. The plan was to raise the mollusks for his pubs (“Guinness and oysters go hand in hand,” he says), but when he and his family harvested a surfeit, he called his restaurant friends.

His Back Creek Beauties, with a nice hint of salt, surface at 21st Street Seafood Company and CP Shucker’s among others. At Murphy’s, they come raw, steamed, fried, topping burgers and, going with the flow of the milieu, baked with Jameson Irish Whiskey.

Photo by Jim Pile

Ileana D’Silva and Mikey Maksimowicz at Casa Pearl in Williamsburg (Photo by Jim Pile)

Comeback Kids

The Commonwealth’s oyster industry has come a long way since the latter part of the 20th century when overharvesting, habitat loss and disease reduced the oyster population to a scant percent of what it had been when Captain John Smith famously wrote in his journal “oysters lay as thick as stones.”

It’s still not back to the explorer’s experience in 1608, but thanks to restoration efforts, of which aquaculture is a vital part, the tide has turned.

“Before 2010, we were around 10 million or less oysters sold and now it’s somewhere between 35 and 40 million oysters annually,” says Walton, making Virginia the East Coast leader, at 14.5 million dollars, in farm gate (the value of goods purchased directly across the dock). And that figure doesn’t even take into account economic multipliers like retail markup.

“We keep growing more and people keep buying more,” says Tim Rapine, COO at Cherrystone Aqua-Farms, where they sell about a quarter of those 40 million. The integrated company (“from seed to sale”) with a five-generation pedigree, began marketing directly to customers during the pandemic but primarily sells to wholesalers like Sam Rust who in turn supply restaurants including Fuller’s Raw Bar in Hampton and Steinhilber’s in Virginia Beach.

Husk in Savannah and Roots in Jonesboro, Ark., are restaurants farther afield, like MVD, where their oysters grace menus. Cherrystone does an equal business in wild oysters with Rapine noting that each has its own market niche. Wilds are typically shucked and sold in bulk. You might find them in quart jars at your grocery store or at big buffets. Farm-raised are considered more boutique, embraced by restaurants that tout provenance.

“A cool thing about the farm-raised oysters and their distribution channels is that many restaurants have more than one oyster on their menu,” says Rapine. “Whereas traditionally in seafood it was a competition between one company’s product versus another.”

Cherrystone Aqua-Farms Oysters

Oysters on the half shell from Cherrystone Aqua-Farms in Cape Charles (Photo courtesy of Cherrystone Aqua-Farms)

A Slew of Slurpees

Oysters cycle in and out at the Oceanfront’s The Atlantic on Pacific including those from beyond Virginia, but of the dozen on a recent list, eight were local including bright and sassy Dixie Belles from the northern reaches of the Eastern Shore, and Laughing Kings, an ambrosial oyster with a bracing climax, from the Shore’s southernmost inlet.

Rockafeller’s, too, can feature several but the beloved Rudee Inlet seafood house always has meaty, juicy Big Island oysters and mild James Rivers. Restaurants encourage patrons to sample a variety to appreciate the subtle nuances of each.

“It can be like a wine tasting,” says Travis Croxton, co-owner with his cousin Ryan Croxton of Rappahannock Oyster Co., founded in 1899 by their great grandfather, providing Rappahannock River oysters, Rochambeaus and Olde Salts to all 50 states (including big-name establishments like Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm) and Asia.

Indeed, it’s not uncommon to hear words like mineral and vegetal bandied about as folks debate their favorites. And just as you swirl and swish to enhance wine tasting, helpful tips for eating a raw oyster include sniffing the bouquet (scent), savoring the liquor (the liquid in the shell), chewing to get maximum flavor and turning the shell upside down afterwards to let your server know you’re done.

Above all, start with an easy-on-the-salt oyster, perhaps one from the Rappahannock River, so as not to overwhelm your palate, then go up in salinity with each kind. Wind up with something like a Sewansecott from Hog Island Bay for oceanic impact.

“Oysters are returning to what they were at the turn of the 19th century: a comfort food,” Croxton continues. “Back then, people went to oyster saloons instead of Starbucks to hang out.”

He shares that they’re selling more than ever before at their restaurants – Merroir, a tasting room at their farm in Topping, Rappahannock in Richmond and three Rappahannock Oyster Bars (Washington, D.C.; Charleston, S.C.; and Los Angeles) – and they’re about to open an outpost at Dulles International Airport.

Terrence Doyal, executive chef at the Tides Inn, observes the “Cheers” effect, too. The Chesapeake Restaurant and Fish Hawk Oyster Bar naturally fill with out-of-towners staying at the waterfront property, but the oyster bar draws locals just popping in to down a dozen and shoot the breeze with their neighbors, too.

Photo by Leona Baker

Oysters Rockefeller can be ordered three ways at Atlantic on Pacific in Virginia Beach (Photo by Leona Baker)

Purists to the Oyster Curious

Raw bars typically accompany iced oyster trays with peppery mignonettes and cocktail sauce. Doyal likes to switch up his condiments to garden-y takes, composing apple-cucumber and raspberry mignonettes, and sometimes swaps rice wine vinegar or champagne vinegar for red wine.

Purists, though, prefer their oysters “naked,” a squirt of lemon at most. At The Atlantic on Pacific, Vince Amato, general manager, says that raw oysters are their wheelhouse and demand is on the rise.

He measures growth by the fact that when the restaurant opened four and a half years ago, they donated 750,000 spent shells to Lynnhaven River Now whose SOS program puts shells recycled by restaurants and individuals back into the Bay to restore oyster reefs. “Now we’re killing that number,” he says.

Besides their regular clientele, they get quite a few oyster try-ers. “It’s great to watch their reaction. For a moment, they look miserable,” he says. “Then you see fireworks in their eyes as they experience this world of flavors.”

Oyster virgins at Waypoint surrender to the succulence after one glance of chef James White’s comely presentation with orchids. And sometimes newbies will try them when they’re folded into familiar dishes, like Rustic Spoon’s fried oysters Benedict. Size matters when converting the squeamish.

Virginia oysters typically run from 2 to 6 inches with most around 3 to 3.5 inches. Petites (2 to 2.5 inches)—termed cocktail oysters—are geared for happy hours when folks don’t want an oyster as big as a fist.

“They’re also good for folks who aren’t used to oysters,” says Hart at Cherrystone. “They’re less intimidating.” Cherrystone’s Little Bitches and Chunus fit the bill of “gateway” oyster, as do others from local waters like those Minnie Pearls at Casa Pearl.

Brash seasonings win over the uninitiated, too. Merroir swabs roasted oysters with a chipotle barbecue butter and Tides Inn broils them with Thai chili. Tin Cup offers crispy, spicy Bang Bang-style oysters and riffs on oysters Rockefeller with a Southern rendition incorporating pimento cheese.

“Oysters Rockafeller” at Rockafeller’s boasts bacon, which can be a bridge for bacon-heads not yet oyster-enamored. Matt Henley, operations manager, calculates that four-fifths of the oysters they sell are in this house specialty. “It’s king,” he reports.

oysters for couples

Are oysters really an aphrodisiac? Our experts wouldn’t commit, but the love amongst the local oyster community is real.

For the Bay and Your BAE Fortunately for oyster lovers old and new, the “only months with R” rule is ancient history because of refrigeration and aquaculture, which allows oysters to be harvested year-round. That means you can enjoy their vitamin-rich, low-calorie benefits any day.

Speaking of bennies, are oysters aphrodisiacs? None of our experts provided concrete data, but they advised each consumer to experiment as desired.

“They are high in a number of minerals and micronutrients,” says Walton at VIMS. “That can’t hurt.” What is for certain is that Virginia oysters are bringing people together.

“The oyster world is not a cutthroat industry,” says Smiley of the Tides Inn. “It’s about collaborating to make a strong economic engine for Virginia and save the Bay.”

He shares how the Chesapeake Oyster Alliance unites nonprofit groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, academe, community groups and oyster growers to increase restoration efforts, ensure science-based management and support oyster aquaculture.

They’re halfway to their goal of 10 billion oysters in the Bay by 2025. “None of us is an island. We keep learning from each other,” he says. We can’t take that kind of cooperation for granted.

“Not every coastal community that relies on a fishery is going in the right direction the way we are,” says Walton at VIMS. And Virginia oysters are bringing people here, pumping tourism dollars into rural economies.

“We’re always telling friends and regulars about the natural beauty of the Chesapeake, and we often suggest Chincoteague as a vacation destination,” says Deluca of MVD. “We’re thrilled to be able to bring something special from one of our favorite places in the world to another.”

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