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4 tasty takes on oysters by top Tidewater chefs

Perfectly plated oysters Rockefeller, courtesy of Chef Travis Brust at Williamsburg Inn. Perfectly plated oysters Rockefeller, courtesy of Chef Travis Brust at Williamsburg Inn.

Whether fried, grilled, roasted, steamed, served in a stew, or eaten raw, Virginia’s Tidewater oysters deliver clean, nuanced flavors and firm, slippery textures.

These beloved bivalves have been on the menu in this region for centuries. When Virginia Company colonists landed in 1607, they came across Native Americans dining on oysters. More than 400 years later, oysters remain one of the region’s most delectable culinary calling cards.

“Oysters are like wine,” says Bruce Vogt of family-run Big Island Aquaculture and president of the Virginia Oyster Trail, which offers maps to oyster farms and restaurants at virginiaoystertrail.com. “Where they’re grown impacts on the flavor.”

Bivavles harvested along the Eastern Shore have a burst of salt. At Tangier Island, in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, the constant water movement gently bathes the oysters with a hint of saline without turning them into salt bombs. And in the upper Chesapeake Bay, the oysters are rich and sweet with a light, creamy taste.

With such an abundance of magnificent mollusks, it’s no wonder that Tidewater chefs delight in finding wonderful ways to serve them.

We asked 4 of the region’s tall toques to share their favorite oyster dishes. Plus, pro tips on how to eat an oyster.

1. Williamsburg Inn, Colonial Williamsburg

The chef: Travis Brust

Chef Travis Brust at Williamsburg Inn.

Chef Travis Brust at Williamsburg Inn.

Travis Brust won Best Chef at the World Food Championships in Las Vegas in 2012 and has helmed the kitchen of the Rockefeller Room at Williamsburg Inn (now temporarily closed) in Colonial Williamsburg for the past 17 years. He was named executive chef in 2009 and now is director of food and beverage for all restaurants on the property.

Brust prefers a salty, ocean-grown oyster. “It lends itself to more applications,“ he says, noting that the oyster must be straight from the ice. “Ice cold is a must.”

The dish: oysters Abby

Chef Brust takes a flame to his oysters Rockefeller to caramelize a freshly whipped lemon sabayon topping, making for a decadent dish.

Chef Brust takes a flame to his oysters Rockefeller to caramelize a freshly whipped lemon sabayon topping, making for a decadent dish.

With oysters Abby, Brust pays homage to Abigail Aldrich “Abby” Rockefeller, the American socialite and philanthropist who, along with her husband, financier John D. Rockefeller Jr., were driving forces behind the establishment of Colonial Williamsburg.

Brust nestles Tangier Island oysters over a bed of hot rock salt studded with spices. He spoons a freshly whipped lemon sabayon over the oysters and sets them under flame to caramelize the sabayon and warm the oysters. He then places a glass cloche over the bowl to trap the vapors and the essence of the lemon and spices.

As the dish is presented to the guest, the cloche is removed, enveloping the diner in a full sensory experience.

(Historical note: Oysters Rockefeller, served with a buttery spinach sauce, was invented in 1899 at Antoine’s Restaurant in New Orleans. According to legend, a customer exclaimed, “Why, this is as rich as Rockefeller!”)

2. Cobalt Grille, Virginia Beach

The chef: Alvin Williams

Chef Alvin Williams at Cobalt Grille.

Chef Alvin Williams at Cobalt Grille.

Alvin Williams has been in the kitchen since he was a teenager; for the past 21 years he’s been the chef-owner of Cobalt Grille. Oysters are a favorite food.

“I like to eat them raw with either just a squeeze of lemon or a side of mignonette,” he says.

The dish: oyster stew

Chef Williams' oyster stew is served atop whipped potatoes, with a garnish of bacon bits, shredded Parmesan, and chopped chervil.

Chef Williams' oyster stew is served atop whipped potatoes, with a garnish of bacon bits, shredded Parmesan, and chopped chervil.

Williams starts with Lynnhavens, harvested from a tributary of Lynnhaven Bay. He shucks each and sets it aside. On the stove, a creamy broth bubbles away, rich with rendered applewood-smoked bacon, freshly chopped shallots, roasted garlic, Tabasco sauce, and heavy cream. The chef slips the oysters into the broth and allows them to gently simmer until the edges of the oysters just curl. He ladles a generous portion over whipped potatoes in each serving bowl. Bacon bits, shredded Parmesan cheese, and chopped chervil garnish the plate.

3. Circa 1918, Newport News

The chef: Chad A. Martin

Chef Chad A. Martin at Circa 1918.

Chef Chad A. Martin at Circa 1918.

Chad A. Martin has spent 22 years in the kitchen, 12 of those as chef-owner of Circa 1918.

“Virginia cuisine is so diverse,” he says. “I love that I live in an area that has oysters so abundant and so local. They all have their distinct taste, depending on which river they come from, so cool.”

The dish: fried oysters

Martin whips the yolks from hard-boiled eggs into a mix with caper juice, Dijon mustard, fresh herbs, and mayonnaise. He places a smear of the deviled egg sauce on the plate. Next, he adds a heaping spoon of avocado mash. After coating the oysters with flour, he fries them, seasoning them with his own spice blend. He then places the oysters atop the avocado and finishes with locally grown micro borage and furikake seasoning.

4. The Atlantic on Pacific, Virginia Beach

The chef: Dave Brue

Chef Dave Brue at The Atlantic on Pacific.

Chef Dave Brue at The Atlantic on Pacific.

Dave Brue has cooked professionally for more than 20 years and has headed up the kitchen at The Atlantic on Pacific since it opened on July 4, 2018.

He loves his “connection with the farmers and the watermen,” he says. “As a kid, I couldn’t stand eating oysters. The texture was something unreal to me. But as my palate matured, I began to love them, and now I could not imagine oysters not being a part of my everyday life.” Brue has at least 5 different types of Virginia oysters on his menu at any given time.

The dish: oysters Pacific

Chef Brue's oysters Pacific is a sassy riff on oysters Rockefeller, baked with house-made chorizo sausage, locally grown cherry tomato, and shaved Manchego cheese.

Chef Brue's oysters Pacific is a sassy riff on oysters Rockefeller, baked with house-made chorizo sausage, locally grown cherry tomato, and shaved Manchego cheese.

The dish showcases mild-flavored Rock Hole oysters from the Little Wicomico River, which complement the chef’s house-made chorizo sausage. Brue carefully shucks the Rock Holes so none of the juice—known as liquor—spills, and carefully places a bit of the sausage on top. To that he adds a thin slice of locally grown cherry tomato and shaved Manchego cheese from Spain. In a sassy riff on a Rockefeller, he then cooks the oysters in a blazing-hot oven for about 5 minutes. The oysters heat through, the chorizo browns, and the cheese melts to enrobe the whole thing, creating an ooey, gooey, delicious bite.

Chef Brue's kitchen includes a selection of Tidewater oysters.

Chef Brue's kitchen includes a selection of Tidewater oysters.

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Pro tips: How to eat an oyster

It’s only when you eat an oyster raw that you’ll fully appreciate the nuanced flavors in that tiny bivalve. Here’s how to indulge, in 5 easy steps.

  1. Hold the oyster cup to your lips and let the oyster and its liquor slide into your mouth.
  2. Don’t just slurp it down—you’ll miss the flavor profile that way.
  3. Chew a bit. Hold it in your mouth; start to become aware of the flavors. Chew a bit more.
  4. Look for notes of butter, cream, minerals, salt, and sweetness. After swallowing, notice how long the flavors linger on the tongue.
  5. Repeat at least a dozen times. —P.E.

Patrick Evans-Hylton is a trained chef who has reported on tasty trends in broadcast, print, and social media for more than 25 years. He also writes at virginiaeatsanddrinks.com.

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