Seafood gem: Public Fish & Oyster charms Virginia’s first lady

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First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe supports the second annual Virginia Oyster Month at Public Fish & Oyster. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe supports the second annual Virginia Oyster Month at Public Fish & Oyster. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

lucked out and married into an oyster family. My wife’s grandfather was a Virginia oysterman, her brother founded a Virginia oyster company and for decades, her family has rung in each November with a spectacular oyster roast. To me, November means oysters.

Now that association is official. Under an order by Governor McAuliffe last year, November is Virginia Oyster Month. It’s part of an effort to showcase the outstanding oysters of the commonwealth and make them synonymous with our state, as crabs are to Maryland. After nearly vanishing, the once-proud industry has surged over the last decade, increasing from 23,000 bushels in 2001 to an estimated 539,000 bushels last year.

In Charlottesville, there is no better place to enjoy Virginia oysters than at Public Fish & Oyster. And, there may be no better companion for it than First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe, the commonwealth’s most prominent supporter of agriculture and aquaculture. McAuliffe almost chose a Virginia oyster for the insignia on her official business card, before deciding on an image from Mount Vernon that more broadly honors the commonwealth’s bounty.

When McAuliffe joined me at Public, she was a fan from the start. It’s no wonder. Walk into Public, and the bright, airy feel of the restaurant, recalling a New England oyster bar, portends good things. “Rustic, but modern,” says McAuliffe. “Beautiful, yet relaxed.”

Owner Daniel Kaufman, a lifer in the food-and-drink industry, opened Public last year to fill a void in Charlottesville dining. “I saw an obvious lack of seafood options,” says Kaufman. After quickly parting ways with his opening chef last summer, Kaufman snagged Donnie Glass who trained at Johnson & Wales University’s College of Culinary Arts, and was a cook at Fossett’s and sous chef at The Local before joining Public. A year in, Glass wins praise from top chefs around town, who often visit on their days off.

We started our meal with oysters, of course. The large selection changes daily, and part of the fun is comparing oysters from different areas. To highlight the nuances, the Virginia Oyster Trail was created, identifying oyster regions and their distinguishing characteristics. “It’s always a treat to compare the flavors of our oysters from Virginia’s seven different oyster regions across the Chesapeake Bay,” says McAuliffe.

First up were Great Wicomicos, from Little Wicomico River, whose sweetness and low salinity make them great for beginners, says Kaufman. Next were Mobjack Bays, just slightly brinier with a meaty body and mineral finish. These, says Kaufman, are ideal for dressing up with Public’s house-made mignonette or cocktail sauce. And, finally, my favorite of the bunch, Sewansecotts from Hog Island Bay, with that briny burst that transports you to the ocean.

Those unfamiliar with Virginia oysters may be surprised by their quality and variety. Glass, who cooked for years in New England, was a skeptic at first. “Now that I’ve tried a lot more varieties,” he says, “I’m wicked impressed.”

But there’s much more to Public than oysters. After we slurped ours down, we were treated to Glass’ current favorite dish on the menu, warm cauliflower salad. Glass roasts cauliflower in African curry powder, olive oil, orange and lemon zest, salt, pepper, golden raisins, shaved shallots and garlic. After chilling it, he heats it in the oven with chopped kale, dresses it with coriander-lime vinaigrette and then tosses the whole thing with pomegranate seeds, cilantro, toasted almonds and aioli. “I loved it,” says McAuliffe. “The perfect salad for a fall day.”

We finished our meal with Kaufman’s favorite dish: PFO pan roast. “Most raw bars in New England have their own version of a pan roast,” says Glass. For his version, Glass adds tomato paste and curry powder to a velouté of lobster stock. He then sautés mussels, clams, shrimp and oysters with garlic, shallots and haricot verts. After deglazing with white wine, he finishes the dish with some of the velouté, butter and a splash of cream. Glass loves the humble nature of the dish. “The oysters taste like oysters, the mussels taste like mussels and the lobster sauce complements everything,” he says.

If you’re not fond of food from the ocean, Glass has a way with land creatures as well. McAuliffe’s executive assistant passed on the pan roast in favor of steak frites and proclaimed it the best steak she ever had in her life.

Public’s success recently led Kaufman to open a second, more casual, location in Crozet. If it’s anything like the original, the first lady might want to visit that one as well. “They do such an amazing job” that to dine at Public, she says, is “inspiring.”

That’s high praise from high places.