The water where the Rappahannock River meets the Chesapeake Bay had grown murky. Plant life was struggling. The solution? According to restaurateur and oyster farmer Travis Croxton, it was a no-brainer. Revive the oyster beds.
As the beneficial bivalves feed on plankton and other organic matter, they also remove particles and muck, producing clear seas and thriving ecosystems. As Croxton puts it, “They’re feeding constantly, eating algae, cleaning up the water.”
“We’ve seen evidence of it turning around,” he says. “The subaquatic vegetation is coming back. The water is crystal clear.”
Others have taken notice of Croxton’s efforts, as well. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe appointed him to the Commonwealth Council on Bridging the Nutritional Divide in late 2014, and he’s won several awards from national media outlets like Food & Wine and Zagat.
Not only does all that mean good things for the Chesapeake Bay, it means good things for oyster fans in Charlottesville. Croxton’s Rocksalt in The Shops at Stonefield, one of seven seafood restaurants in his growing empire, serves ice-cold oysters fresh from his farms, be they the sweet and buttery Rappahannocks, mild and subtly salty Stingrays or deeply briny Olde Salts.
Is Croxton’s mission leading to a shellfish revolution in C’ville? We can only hope so. Here’s a look at other places to slurp down oysters this fall, as cooler water temperatures make the delicacies both tastier and safer to eat raw.
Public Fish & Oyster. Public offers a rotating selection of raw oysters, reaching from Virginia to the West Coast and up into Canada to find the best offerings at any given time. The local seafood favorite also serves its carefully curated oysters fried, roasted, broiled or as ceviche. “We’ve had over 130 varieties through the door since we opened,” owner Daniel Kaufman says. “One of the things that makes us unique is the fact that we source all over.” Kaufman says he’s even brought in oysters from New Zealand; he bases his sourcing decisions not just on seasonality but also “trial and error…what we like and what our customers like.”
Rhett’s River Grill & Raw Bar. C’ville’s original hole-in-the-wall oyster shack, Rhett’s doesn’t skimp on variety. The seaborne nuggets come fried (plain or buffalo-style), Rockefeller’d, raw, steamed, casino’d, “drunken” and sautéed with bacon. The dining room off Route 29 also serves a mean oyster po’ boy, but it’s only available for lunch.
Seafood @ West Main. The great thing about raw oysters is you don’t have to cook a thing to make them delicious. (See sidebar.) At Seafood @ West Main, owner Christopher Arsenault favors Virginia oysters from the ocean side: “Oysters take on the flavor of the areas where they’re harvested, and people typically prefer the saltier ones.” But he also stocks plenty of bivalves from New England and Canada. —Shea Gibbs
Go shuck yourself
The most common method of oyster shucking, according to resources from science and restoration outfit the Chesapeake Bay Program, is to use an oyster knife to pop the bivalve at the hinge. Here’s a step-by-step breakdown.
1. Wearing gloves, place the oyster round side down on a cutting board.
2. Position the tip of a broad-blade oyster knife at the hinge, the slight indentation where the two halves of the oyster shell meet.
3. Holding the oyster firmly in place, apply light pressure at the hinge and wiggle the knife until it enters the shell and pops the two halves apart.
4. Scrape the knife slowly along the top shell, from the hinge to the opposite end, to sever the muscle connecting the oyster to its shell.
5. Discard the top shell.
6. Scrape the knife along the bottom half of the shell to sever the muscle connecting the oyster to the shell on the other side.
7. Serve the oyster in its bottom shell over ice with selected condiments.—S.G.