Helen Schwab

Oysters and more at ROCKSALT

Rappahannocks on the half shell. One night’s selection: Rappahannock, Stingray and Olde Salt.
Rappahannocks on the half shell. One night’s selection: Rappahannock, Stingray and Olde Salt. HELEN SCHWAB

The food: The owners of Rappahannock River Oysters, an oyster farming operation in Virginia noted nationally for the past decade or so, have found success with several restaurants, including Merroir, a place on the banks on the Rappahannock River. This is the second ROCKSALT; the first is in Charlottesville, and at each, the plan is to let shellfish lead, surely, but allow menu idiosyncracies.

Charlotte chef Jay Pierce (lately of Greensboro’s Lucky 32) will be changing up the set often. The first incarnation includes raw bar items individually or grouped (“The Myers Park,” for $72, is a dozen each of oysters, clams, mussels and shrimp, for instance); three varieties of caviar with vinegar chips and crème fraiche; oyster chowder, Carolina shrimp ceviche, three variations on broiled oysters; and mains such as seared Carolina trout with Texas caviar, pan-fried catfish and a Thai version of mussels and noodles.

Wood-fired steaks, chicken and whole fish get a category to themselves, and judging by the flounder, rightly so: This was a beautiful fat fish with perfectly grilled skin. Chesapeake crabcake proved crabby enough to please me, the former Maryland resident. But my favorite of the night was Lamb and Clams: Olde Salt clams steamed with ale and chunks of lamb sausage, all doused with chimichurri and served with toasted bread. A pint or two of that broth as a beverage, please.

I’ll be interested to see how seasonality plays out on this tightly edited lineup. Pierce says, “I look forward to making our local food system work harder,” mentioning “underappreciated aggregators” such as Firsthand Foods and Eastern Carolina Organics – and lists Prune in New York as a key inspiration, and that’s a marvelously specific target: homey yet smart, lush yet measured.

The look: Part crab shack, part hip bar scene, the place is essentially one long room with an L-shaped bar, view into the kitchen and a patio that looks onto the Little Sugar Creek greenway, which I suspect will, when not snow-covered, be kind of gorgeous.

The service: We were greeted with warmth on a bone-chilling night, ushered quickly to seats and amiably cared for. Kinks to work out: Not enough room around one dining-area screen that most servers must use (leading to lines of servers bumping or blocking diners); loudness (as in: it is); a still-evolving drinks menu.

The details: Dinner only now, 5-11 p.m. nightly; mains about $21-$28 (to market price for steak and fish); 512 Brandywine Road; 704-503-9945; www.rocksaltrestaurants.com.

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