When Phil Bowers and Nezih Pistar were conceptualizing an oyster-themed event, their minds immediately wandered to Oyster Riot at the Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, D.C. Not to mimic it, per se — it’s a black-tie affair that costs $150 a ticket, after all — but to construct a similar kind of festival, one that sells out months before the event and draws hundreds of people into the city.
“There are dozens of oyster festivals all around the area that draw huge crowds,” said Pistar, the co-owner (with Bowers) of five downtown restaurants. “So, we thought, ‘Why can’t we do it here in Frederick?’”
There was nothing stopping them, of course. So, they enlisted the help of Joseph Canlas, the head chef at Brewer’s Alley, to launch the first-ever Downtown Frederick Oyster Crawl. A year in the making, the event officially launches on Saturday at noon and includes eight different restaurants, from Shuckin’ Shack Oyster Bar on South Market Street (a natural fit) to Olde Towne Tavern five blocks down the road.
Each restaurant will have a minimum of two oyster dishes and an oyster-themed drink special to go along with them. In an effort to stay local, Canlas is sourcing the mollusks at Brewer’s Alley from two nearby oyster farms: True Chesapeake, in St. Jerome Creek, and War Shore, in Jessup.
He anticipates that most participating restaurants will be using either True Chesapeake Skinny Dippers — a three to four-inch oyster with a characteristic “soft salt” taste — or the smaller, crisper Huckleberry oysters. Both varieties have a mild salinity, but Brewer’s is also stocking two brinier options: “Brewer’s Salt” oysters from True Chesapeake and “Sea Stone” oysters from War Shore.
Farmed oysters are usually a cheaper, more sustainable alternative for restaurants, given that wild oyster populations in the Chesapeake Bay are currently at less than one percent of historic levels. Ten percent of food sales from the event are going to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to restoring the inlet and preserving native wildlife populations.
From a chef’s perspective, oyster farms are also advantageous because they can manipulate the mollusks for flavor, adjusting water salinity or living conditions to change the overall taste. Those subtle differences in flavor — often called “merroir” — can enhance the oyster-eating experience.
“Oysters are really closer to wine,” Canlas said. “A shrimp, no matter what the type, is pretty much going to taste the same. A crab will taste the same. A scallop will taste the same. Oysters, they’re a little different.”
That subtlety, plus most Marylanders’ natural affinity for the bivalves, convinced Bowers and Pistar that an oyster crawl would succeed in Frederick. Eventually, the restaurateurs would like to see it become a city-wide event, with street closures and increased foot traffic up and down Market Street. In the meantime, they’re excited to see how the first year will go.
“We’ll feel it if it’s a success,” Canlas said. “If we’re having trouble controlling the crowds, that’s when we’ll know people are really responding.”
Oyster Crawl Specials
The staff at Brewer’s Alley will be shucking oysters in the street and at the restaurant’s main bar area from noon until 4 p.m. Canlas is serving five different varieties of raw oysters, including Skinny Dippers and Huckleberries from True Chesapeake Oyster Farm.
The restaurant will also offer buffalo fried oysters, garlic butter roasted oysters, and an oyster po’ boy, Canlas said. General Manager Travis Vaughan coordinated the drink specials, which include five different types of oyster shooters. There’s the original Brewer’s shooter — a single oyster dropped into Kolsch beer and cocktail sauce — along with more elaborate concoctions. Those include a margarita shooter and a Chesapeake-style shooter served in an Old Bay-rimmed glass.
Cellar Door Restaurant
The food specials at Cellar Door include Italian-style oysters baked with garlic and parmesan, grilled oysters served with Cajun compound butter, and a shrimp and crab spring roll stuffed with cheddar and served with a house remoulade sauce. Head chef Mark Burker said the kitchen is also highlighting two types of wine: a 2017 Angeline Chardonnay and a 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon from The Originals.
Firestone’s Raw Bar
Firestone’s will be offering Huckleberry oysters topped with basil oil, heirloom tomatoes, and a crispy prosciutto chip, as well as a Huckleberry oyster BLT, said head chef Andrew Mayers. The restaurant will also serve a baked oyster casino with bell peppers, candied bacon and cornbread.
The drink special will be an elaborate oyster shooter, according to general manager Chris Terelya. The “Smoke and Spice” will feature bourbon, mezcal, bitters, and a peach lemon simple syrup that “adds some depth and sweetness,” Terelya said, to the briny shooter. To serve the drink, a staff member plops a single oyster into an empty shot glass before pouring in the cocktail.
JoJo’s Restaurant and Tap House
JoJo’s is offering a cream-based oyster stew for the Crawl and an oyster po’ boy with lettuce, tomato, and a Cajun remoulade, said restaurant owner Joanna Button. The food will be accompanied by two drink specials: a “beermosa” made with Flying Dog’s Nitro Blood Orange Ale and a rosé wine spritzer.
Olde Towne Tavern
Olde Towne is also offering an oyster po’ boy with cheddar, lettuce, and tomato, according to owner Lisa Payne. The sandwich is joined on the menu by cheese-baked oysters served on the half shell.
The drink special? Another oyster shooter, this one made Bloody Mary-style.
Shuckin’ Shack Oyster Bar
Shuckin’ Shack is also serving oyster stew and buffalo oysters on the half shell. In the latter dish, the oysters will be fried and tossed in buffalo sauce before they’re topped with blue cheese, said restaurant owner Eric Weller.
You can also expect to slurp down a wide variety of — what else? — oyster shooters. Most of Shuckin’ Shack’s are vodka-based, Weller said, but there is one version made with tequila, Yuengling, and gin. Plus, there’s the spicy “blistered oyster bomb” made with hot sauce, jalapeños, and fresh horseradish.
The Wine Kitchen on the Creek
Head chef Jeff Beard said The Wine Kitchen will be featuring raw Chesapeake oysters with a pickled onion and horseradish mignonette sauce, plus a fried oyster salad with butter lettuce, radicchio, pickled fennel, grilled corn, and a lemon-thyme vinaigrette.
If the idea of oyster shooters makes you gag, The Wine Kitchen will be a welcome reprieve. The restaurant is instead offering its “Birth of Venus” cocktail, a refreshing blend of Tenth Ward absinthe, aquavit, pineapple juice and cucumber, plus lemon juice and a mango green tea syrup.
There’s a po’ boy of sorts at Volt — a deconstructed version with fried oysters, remoulade, pickled cucumber, marinated cherry tomatoes served alongside toasted bread. The kitchen will also serve the bivalves in a butternut squash bisque with country ham and pickled onion, said executive chef Dan Kennedy.
To drink, Volt is featuring a traditional Muscadet Sèvre et Maine. The white wine, harvested from the Loire Valley, has a nice minerality that showcases the salinity of the oysters, according to general manager Robert Stevenson.