When Chef Rob Rubba was the executive chef at Hazel, he created some memorable dishes, most notably a steak tartare with tater tots and caramelized onion dip mix-ins and his grandmother’s zucchini bread, which came with a jar of foie gras mousse, chamomile gelee, and bee pollen. The chef has since done a complete 180 by committing to a vegetarian diet and diving into a new restaurant focused almost entirely on vegan and vegetarian cuisine. Oyster Oyster should open this month in Shaw.
“At one of our pop-up dinners I made carrot steak for a dinner,” Rubba says. “I went home and thought it was the dish I was the most proud of in my entire career—just how deep and satisfying it was.” He’s also never felt more challenged. “Even as a chef working with so many proteins in the past, this is probably the most technically challenging work I’ve done and probably the most exciting flavors I’ve cooked.”
Since announcing the restaurant back in 2018, Rubba and his partners, restaurateur Max Kuller of Estadio and bartender Adam Bernbach formerly of 2 Birds 1 Stone, have dialed into developing menus that celebrate seasonality and showcase cool techniques for extracting the most taste from plant-based ingredients.
Oyster Oyster’s inception was based on a 2017 Saveur article that asked “What Dinner Might Look Like in a Future of Global Warming and Rising Sea Levels.” The attention paid to climate change has only intensified in the years since, with the devastating United Nations report and young activist Greta Thunberg‘s global quest to sound the alarm. Cutting back on meat and dairy and sourcing ingredients locally to reduce one’s carbon footprint are two widely held recommendations for eating with the planet in mind.
The Oyster Oyster menu (below) is divided into four sections. Diners will select one dish from each for $49. The three savory sections progress from canapé-sized bites to larger portions with “deeper, stronger flavors and smoke elements” you might find in an entrée.
Some may question if $49 is too much to spend on vegetables, grains, and the restaurant’s only animal protein—oysters. “Experience it first and then decide,” Rubba encourages. “We’ve all put so much thought into it and the quality of product we’re getting. I think the taste and how you feel after the meal will reflect that for anyone who’s a denier.”
Both Kuller and Rubba eat oysters despite being vegetarians, noting that oysters play a vital role in the ecosystem by filtering water, and that they don’t have central nervous systems, so they don’t feel pain.
One dish shows how they’re squeezing as much as possible out of each ingredient. The “whey vinaigrette” that comes with the sweet potato confit comes from the same pumpkin seeds used in the dish. Rubba started out knowing you can make a tofu-like product from pressing pumpkin seeds. “It curdles like if you’re making curds of cheese,” he says. “When you strain it, you get whey. It’s super tasty because we make it with a lot of aromatics.”
The goal is to avoid the trash bin at all costs. Rubba is thinking of vegetables the same way a nose-to-tail chef fixates on using the whole animal. “If we trim a carrot, where does the trim go?” he poses. “It needs to cycle its way through the menu or make it onto the beverage menu because it’s not going into the trash can. Composting is our last resort.”
Eventually the garage space that acts as Oyster Oyster’s bar (complete with pinball machines) will operate a daytime grab-and-go business with lunch items that utilize scraps from dinner.
Rubba’s desserts also factor in sustainability by not overly relying on “refined sugars, commodity flours, excessive butter, or egg.” Take “Potato and Peanut,” for example. “They both grow underground and their grow cycle is similar,” Rubba says. “It started with me putting peanut butter and honey on a potato chip and it was really good.”
To make the dessert, Rubba adds peanut butter to potato puree. “You get a really fluffy mousse you’d normally have to add a lot of heavy creams and eggs to. We eliminated that to make it vegan and added some preserved berries. It takes on that peanut butter and jelly quality—something you can connect to.”
Don’t get too attached to any dish. Oyster Oyster plans to offer six menus throughout the year based on what they can get from the farmers they’ve formed partnerships with including Root and Marrow Farm. Diners will be able to experience the full lifecycle of some crops. One menu might use the sprouts of a vegetable that will be featured once its full grown on a later menu.
“Hopefully there will be things that are special about each one,” Kuller says. “Some will be inherently more exciting than others like the mid-summer menu will be a joyous time for the restaurant. Our harvest menu from the end of September through the middle of November will probably be our longest menu. And, the holiday menu from Thanksgiving through New Year’s will use more decadent ingredients like local truffles.”
The opening menu will be in place from when the restaurant opens later this month through May 1st.
Asked if restaurants like Oyster Oyster are the future of dining out, Kuller shares some insider information. They almost named the restaurant “Future.” “That was one of the first working names for the restaurant, but it was a little too pretentious,” he says. “I think every day you see more and more indicators that we’re moving towards a world that has no choice but to move in this direction.”
Kuller even says he’d welcome copycats. There are also plant-restaurants that came before Oyster Oyster, including Elizabeth’s Gone Raw, Fancy Radish, Fare Well, Pow Pow, Bubbies Plant Burgers & Fizz, HipCityVeg, Shouk, Chaia, Beefsteak, and Khepra’s Hemp Burger.
Oyster Oyster, 1440 8th St. NW; oysteroysterdc.com