Two cousins save Chesapeake oysters from culinary extinction
With a deep, corrugated cup, soft saline nectar and a creamy-sweet interior, the Rappahannock may be the crown jewel of Chesapeake Bay, and the greatest of all North American oysters. Which makes it alarming that it almost disappeared from menus entirely. Not many people, even hardened oyster nerds, would have noticed. There are, after all, so many subspecies of oyster to choose from: Blue Points from Long Island, Kumamotos from Washington State, Wellfleets from New England. Who would have cared? Two cousins from Virginia, Travis and Ryan Croxton, would have. Over the past decade, the Croxtons have rescued the Rappahannock from culinary extinction and are spreading its gospel far and wide.
“In 2002, you were lucky to find a Chesapeake Bay oyster at all, much less from a specific region,” says Travis. “It became our mission to ensure that these regional distinctions, and the prestige of the Bay, would survive us.” Because they were poorly grown and harvested, native Crassostrea virginica oysters had been replaced worldwide by foreign varieties. The Croxton cousins, through their Rappahannock Oyster Company, stepped in and filled the void, producing a small but glorious weekly haul of these oysters, whose amazing flavor has chefs and seafood lovers enthralled.
“When we resurrected the family company after a 10-year hiatus in 2002, we inherited no land, equipment or know-how,” Travis says. Both cousins agree that this was a good thing—instead of just dredging and hauling the river bottom, a reckless practice that, along with poor management, had decimated Virginia’s oyster population in the first place, they taught themselves how to farm oysters in the open water. The result was a richer, cleaner, healthier oyster, one that breathes freely surrounded by bay water instead of being suffocated in the mud.
If you can’t get all the way out to Merroir, the duo’s raw bar on the bay in Topping, Virginia, you’ll be glad to know that they’ve opened a major seafood restaurant, Rappahannock, in Richmond. There you’ll find not only the eatery’s namesake oyster but other ancient varieties brought back from the brink: the Stingray, the Olde Salt, the Witch Duck, the Barcat. They’re all the same type of oyster, but from different parts of the river, bay or ocean, each taking on the unmistakable flavor of its home—what the Croxtons refer to as “merroir,” after the concept of terroir in winemaking.
As their fame spreads, Rappahannock oysters are moving beyond Virginia as well. “They’re amazing,” says Michael White, chef at New York’s Marea restaurant. “We use them as fast as we get them.” But eating the Rappahannock oysters fresh out of their beds is the way
you are supposed to enjoy them. At Merroir, a tiny place with only a few tables and a bar, you can eat one variety after another, tasting their kinship and their differences—an entire family tree of shellfish that almost didn’t exist.
You can see how it must have happened: Two suspendered bartenders receive a gelato-maker in the mail and, not knowing precisely what to do with it, fill it with rye and sweet vermouth. Perplexed at the results, they stare at each other for several minutes, and a genre is born. Just in time for the hottest month of the year, frozen classic cocktails have begun appearing all over North America. Wildebeest in Vancouver, B.C., has requisitioned a slurpee machine to make brunch drinks like the Income Tax, with gin, dry and sweet vermouth, orange juice and bitters. Beast of Bourbon, a whiskey and barbecue joint in deep Brooklyn, offers frozen whiskey sours and whiskey sweet teas and will even mix them together. At Snow & Company, a Kansas City restaurant that specializes in frozen drinks, there are about 10 at any given time, as well as frozen cocktail flights. Here, owner Jerry Nevins shows us how to make a bar favorite, the Rockefeller.
The Rockefeller• 20 oz. water
• 9 oz. simple syrup
• 5 dashes Angostura bitters
• 3.5 oz. sweet vermouth
• 9 oz. cherry-infused
Old Overholt rye
• 1 Old Overholt–soaked cherry
To make cherry-infused Old Overholt, place nine fresh or frozen dark cherries in 9 oz. of whiskey in an airtight glass jar. Let sit for at least 48 hours in a cool, dark place. Reserve cherries. Add first five ingredients to a DeLonghi (or similar) ice cream maker. Follow freezing instructions. To serve, garnish with an Old Overholt–soaked cherry.
When most people imagine the traditional dishes of the North Pacific U.S. territory of Guam, they tend to think of the foods its previous occupiers have brought there—mainly sushi or Spanish-inspired barbecue. The handful of Guamanian eateries in West Coast cities like San Diego and Portland have done little to dispel that impression. They tend to serve barbecue-style fare rather than the authentic cooking of the island’s native Chamorro people.
This is what makes Prubechu, a haute contemporary Guamanian restaurant that opened recently in San Francisco’s Mission District, such an exciting development. Chef Shawn Naputi and his business partner, Shawn Camacho, have updated Chamorro dishes—such as kelaguen, ceviche-style chopped chicken with shredded coconut, and chalakilis, a classic rice porridge flavored with achiote—to make use of West Coast ingredients and fit them onto a trendy tasting menu. The chalakilis, for instance, comes topped with a riotously colorful melange of crispy pork belly, garlic-rubbed, smoked pork jerky, a sous vide quail egg, anchovy and sugar snap peas.
“We’re doing traditional recipes, but adapting them to reflect the ingredients available in California,” says Naputi, a native of Guam who honed his chops in high-end San Francisco kitchens such as Incanto and Salumeria. “We’re trying to share our food and culture and change perceptions.”
At Loa, a plush cocktail den in New Orleans’ International House Hotel, a customer orders a drink called “Ten Years in a Day,” a reference to the melancholy George Jones song “I’ve Aged Twenty Years in Five,” in which a disgraced cowboy faces himself in a dusty men’s room mirror. Served on a silver tray, the drink comprises a glass of cabernet, a hand mirror and a small etched-glass box of smelling salts. When it arrives, the customer plays along, “fainting” convincingly upon seeing her reflection and “reviving” when the bartender opens the smelling salts. A few seats down, a man orders the “Ne’er-do-well,” a sinner’s tableau that includes a half bottle of Bulleit rye with several juices for mixing, some playing cards and a pair of dice.
Bored with the punctiliousness of the craft cocktail movement, Loa’s “Spirit Handler,” Alan Walter, a onetime playwright who has a master’s degree in directing, started including beverages with nonfood sides on the menu purely as conversation starters. “I believe there’s theatricality in every cocktail, and I like to entertain,” he says. “The more whimsical drinks I serve take advantage of the natural anticipation people feel when they enter the social arena of the bar.”
Though interactive theater and dining experiences, such as “Queen of the Night” and The Heath in New York City, have recently been all the rage, as far as Walter knows, he is the first to broach the fourth wall solely through alcoholic beverages. “Cocktails don’t fill you up like food, and they’re not medicinal like they used to be,” he says. “Where they have meaning is as a psychological transaction with the bartender.”