Three hospitality industry professionals put their heads together in early 2018 with the shared mission to open a restaurant that puts the planet first. That pearl of an idea from Max Kuller, Rob Rubba, and Adam Bernbach evolved into the upscale plant-based restaurant Oyster Oyster. The Shaw dining room, located at 1440 8th St. NW, was finally set to open in March, but COVID-19 put their plans on pause. While the city has given restaurants the green light to seat some guests in their dining rooms, Kuller can’t fathom it.
“I just disagree with dining rooms being open anywhere in the country,” says the restaurateur, who also owns Estadio. He’s not knocking any operators who have made the opposite decision. “Part of our ethos is being restorative … It’s just so antithetical to be open and spreading a potentially deadly virus,” he says.
Instead, Kuller and executive chef and partner Rubba are packaging four-course meals into fully compostable take-out containers and selling them for pick-up on Tock Thursdays through Sundays from 4 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. “I’m sure you’ve seen how much plastic there is in the take-away world we’re living in right now,” Rubba says. He didn’t want to contribute any waste. The containers are predominantly made from sugarcane pulp and can go right into the compost bin with any leftovers.
Highlights from this week’s menu include a mushroom flatbread with Appalachian cheese and kohlrabi as well as slow-roasted graffiti eggplant coated in spice bush-chili glaze and dotted with coriander capers. The dinners cost $65 and feed two people. “The opening is bittersweet,” Rubba says. “It feels good to be in the kitchen and working with the farmers and producers we’ve wanted to work with for so long.”
The delayed opening has one advantage. It allows Rubba to “put time on a plate.” Consider Oyster Oyster’s marinated summer squash salad with fresh herbs, chili, and both fresh and fermented fennel. “Last year at this same time we fermented that fennel,” he says. “You have the flavor of last year overlapping with this year and are building this dimension on a dish that tells a story of time and place.”
Rubba also pickled turnips and carrots from one of his favorite local farms, Root and Marrow, plus kale stalks, ramp shoots, and capers. But he’s most proud of the preservation technique he learned for making foraged Virginia truffles last. Customers can choose to add earthy shavings to their mushroom flatbread for $8. Jason White, the director of fermentation at famed Copenhagen restaurant Noma, taught Rubba the process.
Oyster Oyster’s four-course menu could change as often as twice a week. Rubba’s goal is to feed diners “what’s most delicious” in the Mid-Atlantic region every night. Almost every ingredient is local. That’s why you won’t find any olive oil. Oyster Oyster uses canola, sunflower, and hemp oil from Susquehanna Mills in Pennsylvania.
If you’ve rather roll up your sleeves for a more casual home feast, Oyster Oyster offers a different menu on Wednesday nights inspired by the Scrappy’s Bagel Bar pop-up Rubba has operated throughout the pandemic with his wife, Deb. The ordering works the same, but the menu is different, featuring plant-based burgers, pizzas, and cheesesteaks sold a la carte.
Rubba has designed a vegetarian cheesesteak using king mushrooms from Maryland, pickled peppers, lettuce, tomato, onions, and either sunflower seed whiz (which makes the sandwich vegan) or cheese made from raw cow’s milk. “A cheesesteak is something I loved eating growing up,” he says. “Now I can eat a version that fits my lifestyle.” Shortly after departing his last executive chef gig at Hazel, Rubba quit eating meat.
Currently customers can tack on natural wines selected by wine director Sarah Horvitz priced at $22 to $27 per bottle. Soon they’ll add bottled cocktails from bar director Bernbach, formerly of shuttered cocktail bar 2 Birds 1 Stone.
By next week, people will be able to try a beer called Adult Ponies that the Oyster Oyster team brewed with Black Narrows Brewing Company in Chincoteague, Virginia. It’s a farmhouse saison that’s loaded with umami flavor. They steeped oyster mushrooms in the brew and used Virginia oyster yeast in the fermentation process. “I swear it smelled like ramen,” Rubba says.
Oyster Oyster, 1440 8th St. NW; oysteroysterdc.com