ROCKSALT Charlotte sits off to one side of Park Road Shopping Center, a rehabbed dry cleaner’s that looks part fish shack, part roughshod elegance. The patio overlooks a parking lot, but also a greenway you’ve probably never noticed.
Fitting – the rough edges and the greenway view, that is. The place focuses on sustainable seafood, the local and the seasonal, an aim also supported by proprietor Travis Croxton’s Rappahannock Oyster Company in Virginia.
An admirable goal – and the best part is what happens when people try a “trash fish” that turns out to be delicious.
ROCKSALT, to its credit, doesn’t call them trash fish. That’s slang for species typically considered less desirable, and when chefs can make silk purses out of porgies and grunts (the national Chefs Collaborative has held Trash Fish Dinners for years to highlight the “undervalued and underutilized”), it’s best if we carefully note those we like and buy them again.
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Chef Jay Pierce came to Charlotte from Lucky 32 in Greensboro, and had cooked for Emeril Lagasse and others. Here, he’s got a menu rubric (shared with ROCKSALT in Charlottesville and other Rappahannock places): raw bar, sharing plates, wood-grilled stuff and “Simple Fish & More.” Pierce, who says he skips salmon and swordfish (and now, even chicken) because “there are so many other things to celebrate,” then has some freedom to play.
Enter the Blue Grunt, and the best single dish I had here.
It was a daily appetizer, a slab of the fish over thin slices of “bread and butter” turnips, tender okra halved lengthwise, with cumin and curried carrot-top coulis. Beautiful, a little surprising; clean flavors. Simple.
The best of the menu is the same: Pierce puts good things together smartly and gets out of the way. Those interested in fish should stick to the specials board, where the porgy and Atlantic spadefish and heirloom tomatoes will appear. (If you’re just stopping in for “seafood,” get the quite-respectable crabcake or scallops.) Expect to learn a few things, such as the fact you may actually have had red porgy before, since the state allows restaurants to call it “pink snapper.” Or that Spanish mackerel can succeed here, some customers’ opinions to the contrary.
The wood-fired grill’s put to good use, from killer smoke-tinged boneless pork chops to whole grilled fish with the house’s smoky, creamy grits. (Hey, y’all: That means head-on. You can request it not be. Just ... don’t.)
The raw bar’s strong too, with three oyster varieties ($2.25 apiece; see “happy hours” below, when they’re $1.25) plus clams and mussels; and a short caviar lineup with a bag of vinegar chips and crème fraiche for splurging.
Interesting fact: Atlantic spadefish look like big angelfish.
The Rappahannock company is the Croxtons’ revival of one begun in the 19th century by their family. It aimed to resurrect the Chesapeake Bay oyster, then splayed its mission to restaurants and the emphasis of local foodstuffs as well, though farms are not listed here in the detail some view as tedious. “Being owned by a farm is the thing that unifies the menu, the narrative,” says Pierce.
I had two troubling plates at ROCKSALT: skate with an ammonia smell (experts argue whether that’s a processing problem or a freshness one, but whichever, it’s tragic, since good skate is remarkable), and a succotash gone to mush. Significant, though I end up thinking the pluses here outweigh them.
I’ve also had some of the best service I’ve had anywhere: confident servers who know the dishes’ details and describe them both accurately and invitingly.
The place is loud when busy, with the sound ricocheting off cinderblock walls and lots of windows and tables and chairs of wood, so consider a spot on the patio if that’s concerning.
A short cocktail list sports creativity and the beer list, locality. Dessert, from hand pies to housemade gelato, is a pleasant surprise as well.
One key note here, because Pierce mentioned he still gets asked about it: Yes, you can eat oysters in summertime (aka months without an “r”). This has to do with reproduction and seasons and essentially boils down to this: The triploid oyster, which doesn’t reproduce, doesn’t lose taste or texture in a spawning cycle.
“Merroir” is what oyster people call the distinctive taste of a place’s oysters: Like wine people’s “terroir.”
So slurp away.
Seafood that emphasizes the sustainable, but also: crabcake.
512 Brandywine Road; 704-503-9945; www.rocksaltrestaurants.com/clt/.
HITS: Good oysters and daily fish, in interesting (and not over-designed) dishes; servers who know of what they speak.
MISSES: Skate gone off.
PRICES: About $13 (a single crabcake)-$26.
HOURS: Opens at 11:30 a.m. daily; closes at 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 Friday-Saturday; oyster “happy hours” ($1.25 each) are 3-6 p.m. weekdays, 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.
INSPECTION SCORE: 92, April 22.
☆☆☆☆= excellent; ☆☆☆= good;☆☆= fair;☆= poor