Rob Rubba had planned for an audience. Ahead of opening Oyster Oyster, the chef at the new sustainability-preaching, mushroom- and mollusk-loving restaurant in Shaw thought he’d be cooking for a room of 35 people. A small crowd could ask him questions about how partnerships with local farms produced ingredients dictated what dishes he’d serve on prix fixe menus that would change day-to-day. Instead, a few weeks into a takeout-only service Rubba has implemented months into the COVID-19 crisis, the chef typically has just one person with him as he plates takeout orders purchased on Tock. Soft, leather chairs imported from Spain stay stacked in an empty dining room while he works in the open kitchen.
D.C.’s Phase 2 reopening guidelines allow restaurants to operate indoors at half-capacity, but the small, rectangular-shaped setup at Oyster Oyster won’t seat anyone for the foreseeable future. A carryout window at 1440 Eighth Street NW currently runs Wednesdays through Sundays from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Four-course dinners for two cost $65.
On a recent August night, weeks after Oyster Oyster’s menus first became available online, co-owner Max Kuller was camped out in a turquoise booth with a set of colorful oil pastels. Kuller, who also owns Estadio on 14th Street NW, was scribbling personalized messages and playful images on each brown, paper to-go bag, replacing the “s” in “Oyster” with yellow lightning bolts. The former art major is also working on a playlist and oyster candle add-on option to set the tone for customers at home.
“We can do something as close to what we were trying to do here, but still be genuine and not just fluffed up or anything,” Rubba says. “It’s all takeaway now, so it’s [about] what can we do and what can’t we do.”
Even though there are no customers to entertain, the partners are getting excited over the ever-changing goodie bags they’re sending out the door for dinner. An eggplant schnitzel with the stem attached to the flattened, breaded plant recently made a two-day appearance as a special.
“Some ingredients are really hot right now and aren’t going to change — corn, squash tomatoes. How they’re plated and presented will change,” Rubba says.
Instead of offering a bread course as planned, Rubba makes pizza with a dough made out of local grains (organic hard winter wheat flour from Pennsylvania’s Small Valley Mills). Thick and pillowy when it comes out of the oven, the circular crust balances an assortment of roasted okra, tomatoes, onions, and chiles with a pepper paste.
For one starter, Rubba works with just two ingredients, carrot and fennel, while adding variety with different techniques. Both vegetables come from Root and Marrow farm in Lovettsville, Virginia. Oxheart carrots, a short and squat variety, were plucked from the ground at the end of winter and have been fermenting with chile peppers under Rubba’s watch since January. Fennel gets the same time-intensive treatment, getting pickled before going into a walk-in to develop more flavor. Rubba includes fresh pollen, fennel fronds, and tender green fennel seeds he compares to capers.
Another recent starter — a crispy nest of julienned potatoes from Moon Valley Farms — puts a spin on French fries.
“It’s super simple [and] really lovely — slowly pan-fried and finished with smoked seaweed salt that we make,” he says.
Plump heirloom tomatoes from Root and Marrow are sliced to order to maintain freshness. For a tomato-everything salad, Rubba makes a salsa out of charred Mexican husk cherries (similar to tomatillos) and dried guajillo chiles. Raw husk cherries and cherry tomatoes also make an appearance. Coriander capers and cucumbers help lighten up the dish and “bring a little sweetness into it.”
August is prime time for tomatoes, but Rubba says the season will extend into September. Karma Farm in Monkton, Maryland, provides the cherry tomatoes in a recent dish du jour.
“Everyone gets excited for fall ingredients at the end of September, but tomatoes then are just as awesome because it cools down and they have time to ripen a bit more,” Rubba says. “That is exciting.”
Root and Marrow founder Erik Schlener makes produce drop-offs once a week, letting Rubba have first pick of the most “experimental” litter.
“More of the crop planting-specific things are done with Erik because we have a closer relationship with him,” Rubba says. “He tells me, ‘I just have 10 of these — can you do something with it?’”
Two examples are “phenomenal” ginger and baby kohlrabi that Rubba ferments.
A hefty helping of gorgeous mushrooms — oyster, Caesar’s, Chanterelles, and other foraged varieties — provide varied textures in a bowl of Mid-Atlantic spelt and barley that’s simmered in mushroom stock. Takeout customers have the option to add shaved Maryland truffles sniffed out by a team of dogs.
“They’re finding them right now in Western Maryland. Sometimes you find them closer to West Virginia,” Rubba says. “If you rake them you are going to ruin potentially getting any more, so the dog will dig them up and hopefully not eat too many of them.”
Grains offer a “nice nuttiness” to the dish, and Rubba finishes it off with a mushroom reduction he makes with all the trim. He compares the texture and taste to a thick Bordelaise sauce.
“Really rich, intense, and earthy — that goes on there just to plump everything up,” the chef says.
Oyster Oyster’s sustainable-everything mantra, which includes compostable to-go containers, does come with some limitations. The packaging won’t hold up to anything that’s “too saucy or hot,” Rubba says. “If we started giving out out plastic we would be hypocritical,” he adds.
Oyster Oyster has held off on serving oysters at the start because the restaurant doesn’t want to throw away the shells, and the Chesapeake Bay’s shell recovery program is just starting up as more patios and beachside businesses reopen.
About a quarter of early orders have from vegan customers. Rubba satisfies their restrictions with a vegan mushroom cheesesteak slathered in a “whiz” made out of a buttery, roasted sunflower seed sauce..
“It tastes like actual cheese and has the same sort of comfort food [feel],” Kuller says. “It coats the mushrooms so well and just oozes around. It’s killer.”
Both Kuller and Rubba, who previously garnered attention for a zucchini bread smeared with foie gras as the opening chef at Hazel, adhere to vegetarian diets. Rubba made the change in 2017, right around the time he started talking about joining the Oyster Oyster project. Adam Bernbach, the bar director at Estadio, is also a partner.
For the bar, the Oyster Oyster team collaborated on an umami-flavored beer with Black Narrows Brewing Company in Chincoteague, Virginia. Bernbach plans to soon introduce draft cocktails that use scraps from Rubba’s dishes. The team also plans to to open a private dining room next-door for groups of up to eight people. The plan is to serve oysters, pizza, and pitchers of beer.