Caricature by Gregory Vanoy

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Three big names in local hospitality are uniting to bring D.C. a restaurant that puts the planet first. Restaurateur and sommelier Max Kuller of Estadio, Chef Rob Rubba formerly of Hazel, and bartender Adam Bernbach formerly of 2 Birds 1 Stone hope to open Oyster Oyster in 2019. But first they’re popping up at Shaw wine bar Maxwell Park on the Saturday and Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend to give diners a preview of their perspective on the future of food.

Oyster Oyster is inspired by an article. Back in April 2017, Saveur printed a story called “What Dinner Might Look Like in a Future of Global Warming and Rising Sea Levels.” Though it predated the devastating United Nations’ climate change report that came out last month, the article asks, “In a world where tuna are extinct, meat is unsustainable, and agriculture is forced to be nearly completely reinvented, what ingredients become central to debating how we will eat in the future?”

The answer largely rests on consuming a plant-based diet and bivalves, most notably oysters and mushrooms. “It was that ‘ah hah’ moment for us,” Kuller says. “That helped us define what we are focused on.” One “Oyster” in the name of the restaurant refers to bivalves, and the other to oyster mushrooms. 

Rubba and Kuller have been friends for years, but what solidified their bond enough to move forward as partners is a shared diet. Kuller has been a vegetarian for 22 years and Rubba made the switch a year ago after carefully contemplating how he and his family members consume. “We were brainstorming and we shared a belief that sustainability is the most important topic with restaurants and dining going into the future,” Kuller says. “Plant-centric cuisine is good for sustainability.”

The Oyster Oyster menu will be plant-based. Sample dishes for the pop-up include seaweed ciabatta with smoked onion butter ($5); a crepe of hearty greens with oyster mushrooms, yuba (tofu skin), and yellow beet mole ($13), and roasted squash with spiced cauliflower, fermented radish, benne seed miso, and gold rice ($16). 

Both Kuller and Rubba eat oysters despite being vegetarians, noting that oysters play a vital role in the ecosystem by cleaning up our local waters, and that they don’t have central nervous systems, so they don’t feel pain. It’s not uncommon for vegetarians and vegans to consume them for that reason. The pop-up menu will also offer oysters on the half shell with preserved marigolds and walnut oil ($9). 

Rubba, who has a background in fine dining under big names like Gordon RamsayCharlie TrotterGuy Savoy, and George Perrier, isn’t letting any one cuisine guide his cooking at Oyster Oyster. The seasons and the ingredients will take care of that. He’s using the downtime before the restaurant opens to solidify partnerships with local farmers and watermen. 

To pair with Rubba’s food, Kuller will cultivate a list of sustainable wines. He was recently named one of Wine Enthusiast’s “40 Under 40 Tastemakers.” He says, “The wine has to sing in the glass—what’s in the glass comes first. But they’ll have a baseline of being sustainable like winemakers who are showing more commitment to the earth.”

Bernbach will work closely with Rubba in the kitchen to cross utilize ingredients as a way of fighting food waste. “It could be a trim or a biproduct of something,” Rubba explains. “It becomes this really cool synergy.”  At the pop-up, Bernbach created a cocktail to pair with each dish. “He’s bringing out flavors in things that would normally go in the bin or the compost.”  

Drinks include bourbon with mushroom-infused cognac, Malmsey madeira, and amaro ($14), a beet and apple gin and tonic ($12), Capitoline rose vermouth with white wine, marigold brine, and spices ($10), and manzanilla sherry with oyster sherry-infused single malt Scotch, and seaweed ($14). 

Kuller knows that sustainability is a word used often and sometimes without a true meaning. “It’s such a buzzy, buzzword,” he says. “It has that quality to it. But we’re committed to the concept. We want to pull people in and have them experience what we mean. I don’t think we can avoid using the word because it’s the word for what we’re doing.” 

The group is looking for a space for a small restaurant. “We want a neighborhood with some soulfulness that has a connection to the community,” Kuller says. As they hunt for a location, there will likely be more pop-ups.

Note that the first pop-up will take place Saturday, Nov. 24 and Sunday, Nov. 25 at Maxwell Park (1336 9th St. NW) from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Walk-in diners only.