On the half-shell: Public Fish & Oyster makes its debut on West Main

Public Fish & Oyster owner Daniel Kaufman said he’s always dreamed of opening a restaurant, and the new West Main spot fills a hole in the local market for fresh seafood. Photo: Christian Hommel Public Fish & Oyster owner Daniel Kaufman said he’s always dreamed of opening a restaurant, and the new West Main spot fills a hole in the local market for fresh seafood. Photo: Christian Hommel

I’ll just come right out and say it: I’m an oyster snob. Born to parents who lived in Charleston, South Carolina for a decade, I tried my first chewy, salty, slightly slimy mollusc—lightly roasted, served on a Saltine cracker with a dollop of homemade cocktail sauce—around age 10, and I never looked back. So when I caught wind of Daniel Kaufman’s plan to open a seafood restaurant with a raw bar on West Main, I was one of the first in line.

Located at 513 W. Main St., in the same spot as the short-lived One Meatball Place, Public Fish & Oyster opened its doors for business in January. Kaufman, who’s been in the food industry for years and spent nearly 10 years running the high-end dining room at Farmington Country Club, said opening his own restaurant has been a lifelong dream. Despite growing up nowhere near the coast, Kaufman said when he discovered oysters as an adult, he was hooked.

“I saw a hole in the Charlottesville market for good, fresh quality seafood, especially oysters,” he said.

Public Fish & Oyster’s raw bar features a rotating menu of fresh oysters and clams from all over the East Coast. At least two different Virginia oysters will always be available, Kaufman said, but he’s “really been taken aback” by the quality of the bushels they’ve ordered from New England, particularly those from Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

“I love my Virginia oysters,” Kaufman said. “But I want the selection to be constantly rotating, to give people new opportunities to try different things.”

Individual oysters on the half-shell are priced at $2 to $2.50 apiece, and served with sides of rose mignonette and shaved horseradish. Reminding myself to save room for the rest of the meal, I practiced great restraint and ordered three: a Rappahannock from Topping, Virginia; a Rome Point from Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island; and a Katama Bay from Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

Kaufman and I agreed that the Rappahannock—a small, inoffensive specimen with minimal slime-factor and a mild, buttery taste—may be the best option for first-timers. The longer, skinny Narragansett Bay was sweeter than the first, with a definite presence of salt water. My server warned me that the Katama Bay was “not for the faint of heart,” and she wasn’t kidding. Taking up the entirety of a shell roughly the size of my palm, the Massachusetts-grown oyster rested in a giant pool of its own clear, salty liquor, and packed an intense, briny flavor.

“Oysters are very similar to wine in that they taste like where they came from,” Kaufman said. “To get the real flavor of an oyster, you have to have it on the half shell, raw, in its own liquor. You really are drinking the water they came out of.”

As I examined, photographed, and eagerly slurped my three oysters and perused the menu for dinner, I couldn’t help but marvel at the novelty of eating my favorite shellfish indoors, wearing respectable business attire, with a napkin in my lap.

In my mind, oysters don’t mean nice linens, glassware, and candle-lit two-top tables. When I think of those shelled saltwater delicacies, what immediately comes to mind is my family’s annual pre-Thanksgiving oyster roast (or, as my brother and I fondly call it, the Ingles Family Glutton Fest). To me, eating oysters is about a giant fire in the backyard, paper napkins, and simple ketchup-and-horseradish cocktail sauce. It’s about my dad hauling freshly roasted shovelfuls from the fire pit to the carport where a 10′ table is strewn with work gloves and shucking knives and surrounded by oyster connoisseurs chomping at the bit to get their hands on the next batch.

I’ve never associated what I see as an excuse to wear Carhartt overalls, drink too much beer, and build a fire (not necessarily in that order) with upscale dining. Still, culture shock aside, Public Fish & Oyster’s raw bar did not disappoint. For that matter, neither did the rest of the menu.

Kaufman’s favorite is the fennel pollen-crusted Virginia rockfish served over stone-ground grits, “a dish that really screams Virginia.” Also on the menu are starters like the plump, succulent, pepper-seared scallops. While most scallop small plates feature little more than a dainty drizzle of accompanying sauce, these are served over a generous helping of pureed butternut squash and apple sauce. If you want a little bit of everything, the seafood stew delivers with a medley of fish, mussels, clams, shrimp, butternut squash, and chickpeas in a spicy Sicilian-style broth.

But what stole the show (aside from the oysters, of course) were the Bangkok-style moules frites. The menu offers four distinct mussel dishes, each simmered in an international-inspired broth with a side of house-cut, twice cooked Belgian fries and aioli. The Thai-style mussels are served in a coconut milk-based red curry sauce that I shamelessly slurped from a half-shell and sopped up with my remaining bread. Kaufman said he’d be happy to give me a straw next time.

“The mussels have become a surprising staple,” Kaufman said. “I guarantee if you come back 10 years from now, we’ll still have mussels on the menu, served three or four ways.”

Perfect pairings

Wondering what to sip on with your platter of raw oysters on the half-shell? Daniel Kaufman recommends a white wine with a high acidity and neutral flavor, like muscadine. But the most classic pairing is with Champagne, made from grapes that grow in a chalky soil made up of fossilized shell fragments.

“You can almost taste the oyster shell in the wine,” he said.

As for beer, Kaufman said it really depends on the oyster, but generally he suggests something that will “let the oyster speak for itself,” with a relatively low alcohol content and minimal hoppiness, like Guinness or a lager.