April 24, 2013 – I chose a sidewalk table. Three colleagues were to meet me for an after hours business meeting. I thought it would be pleasant to sit outside at Hank’s Oyster Bar under the blue sky that had graced Washington, D.C., for the past few days.
“Did you know the forecast is for rain starting around 6:00?” the waitress asked.
It was a quarter past five. Looking up I could see dark clouds flowing over the rooftops to chase the azure away. I moved to an indoor table in the window. At least we could see the sidewalk from there.
Chef Jamie Leeds opened the first Hank’s Oyster Bar, named for her father, in the DuPont Circle area seven years ago. It was an immediate hit with Washingtonians and she’s opened new locations across the Potomac in Old Town Alexandria and on Pennsylvania Avenue in my old Capitol Hill neighborhood where I awaited my colleagues.
Two years earlier retired Air Force Colonel Bruce Wood stumbled across murky Nomini Creek, which empties into Chesapeake Bay in Westmoreland County, Virginia. He had the idea that if he started growing oysters in the mouth of the creek the busy little crustaceans would filter the water and clean up the creek. It worked. The water is clear now and, even better, Wood’s Dragon Creek Aqua Farm is supplying D.C. restaurants with fat, sweet oysters.
In the course of delivering oysters to Leeds’ restaurants they talked up the idea of recycling the oyster shells to build reefs to which the oysters could cling. Now when Wood delivers oysters to the restaurants he hauls away about a thousand pounds of shells per week that are dumped back into the water to continue building the reef homes for the crustaceans. They started developing a premium oyster, named Hayden’s Reef after Leeds’ son. I’m told the Hayden’s Reef oyster has a mild sweet taste with just a hint of brininess.
Consulting the cocktail menu, I was attracted to a concoction called a Sloe & Hard. Not for the double entendre potential but rather for the mescal on which it was based. I’m fond of mescal but it’s not often found on cocktail menus. Tequila, which is actually a specific kind of mescal made from the blue agave plant, is the commonly found version.
In addition to mescal, the Sloe & Hard contained lemon, lemongrass syrup and something called a “Sloe Gin Float.” Sounded interesting. Then the waitress told me it was served frozen. I’m not a fan of frozen cocktails.
Still it had mescal. In Mexico there is a saying. “For everything bad, mescal, and for everything good, as well.” How bad could a frozen cocktail with mescal be?
The drink was served in a cocktail coupe, the shallow-bowled glass popularized by the champagne cocktail. There was a pool of reddish liquid in the bottom and a pile of something that looked like a snow-cone in the center topped by a sprig of mint. With some trepidation I tried it. Very pleasant. More than pleasant. I was soon eating it with a spoon. It really was a mescal snow-cone.
My colleagues had arrived and the business discussion was underway. But talking business at the end of the day makes me hungry. I tuned out of business long enough to ask the waitress about the Hayden’s Reef oysters. Apologetically she told me they weren’t yet ready for harvesting but suggested I might like the Oyster Bay variety. These were Chesapeake Bay oysters from the Virginia side, not the New York variety that have been problematic in recent years. I ordered half a dozen.
Chesapeake Bay oysters were not doing well a few years ago. Pollution and over harvesting had just about decimated them. But thanks to the efforts of Colonel Wood and people like him they’re beginning to make a comeback in some areas. The oysters I sampled were briny and sweet. Exactly what a raw oyster should be. I contemplated ordering more but decided I’d rather try something else from the menu.
Fortunately the serious talk began to wind down. Time to consult the menu again. There was an oyster po’ boy on the menu. I love po’ boys. I thought for a moment about one of my rules of food: Never order gumbo north of Shreveport unless you are sure you’re in a Louisiana restaurant. I wondered for a moment whether that rule applied to po’ boys as well and decided to test the theory.
The sandwich presented to me was definitely not a po’ boy. Call me a traditionalist but there was no French bread on the plate. Instead the oysters were served in a New England potato roll. And they might have been the best oysters I ever ate. So lightly breaded it was barely noticeable. Fat and buttery. So fat the juices literally burst into my mouth when I bit into the first one. The potato roll flattered the plump oysters nicely. Though it was closer to a lobster roll than a po’ boy, it was a great sandwich. I would order another one without hesitation and I don’t care what they call it.
And it never did rain.