Monday, March 09, 2020

True Chesapeake Oyster Co

Full disclosure: I have been acquainted with one of the investors in True Chesapeake Oyster Company since the late 1980s. Also, Chef Zack Mills has long been a favorite person in Baltimore's rather small culinary world. He was very helpful with providing recipes for our third book, Maryland's Chesapeake, and is just an all-around good guy.

Sometime in the second half of 2018, I became aware that True Chesapeake Oyster Company, based in St Mary's County, was planning to open a restaurant in Baltimore, that Zack Mills, who had most recently been executive chef at Wit & Wisdom in the Four Seasons, was involved in the project, and the restaurant would be housed in the as-yet-to-be-redeveloped Whitehall Mill complex on Clipper Mill Road. The Local Oyster, a popular raw bar in Mt Vernon Marketplace, had also signed onto the project. I'm not sure there could be a better trifecta of concept-chef-location, especially not in Baltimore. The resurgence of the region's oyster population, due to the recent boom in oyster farming, has made everyone's favorite bivalve more popular than ever. Maryland native Mills was known for his ways with local seafood. And opening a restaurant along the banks of the Jones Falls has been a recent success story for several restaurateurs (see: Birroteca, La Cuchara, Gypsy's Truckstaurant, and Cosima).

The wait for True Chesapeake the Restaurant (as opposed to the Oyster Farm) seemed interminable, but it finally opened its doors in October of 2019. Mr Minx and I hit them up fairly early, not always a fair thing to do to a new restaurant, but we were eager to experience the food. We weren't the only ones; on our first visit, there seemed to be a pretty good crowd, which included local seafood expert John Shields and his husband John Gilligan, owners of Gertrude's at the BMA.

roasted half-shell oysters, Zack's crab soup
The high-ceilinged restaurant is rustically beautiful, decorated with large globe lamps wrapped in fishing nets, photographs by Maryland photographer Jay Fleming (who provided some of the photos in Maryland's Chesapeake), and lots of exposed brick and beams. There is a large bar that exists both in the front bar area of the restaurant and in the dining room, accommodating both casual and fine dining. Despite the clear separation between bar and dining room, the overall vibe of the restaurant is not formal. However, the food is serious.

the fish stick: fried blue catfish, mayo, capers, cornichons
Ingredients are sourced as locally as possible. Most of the oysters come from True Chesapeake's farm on St Jerome Creek in Southern Maryland, but the restaurant also offers those from other Chesapeake-region growers. Blue catfish and snakehead can also be found on the menu. Though they are damaging the ecosystem and consuming native fauna like rockfish, these invasive species are delicious. Eating them seems like the best way to eradicate them, after all, it worked for local shad and terrapin, which are still struggling to make a comeback in the Chesapeake area.

mushroom toast, crispy horseradish, tarragon, creme fraiche
Non-seafood dishes like the mushroom toast (above) and a regular vegetable-based entree, such as the one with roasted squash and turnips offered earlier this year, will please vegetarians. There are meat dishes too, including a classic burger topped with Hagerstown's Palmyra cheddar, for those folks who go to a seafood restaurant but don't like seafood. (Yes, I know they exist. I just don't understand them.)

crab cake, golden beet puree, creamed leeks, fennel salad
semolina fried oysters, braised swiss chard, caper hollandaise
spaghetti with clams
One of my favorite dishes at True Chesapeake is the house-made spaghetti with middleneck clams and bacon. The portion is app-sized, and fine to share if ordered with a few other apps. Honestly though, they should offer an entree-sized portion. It's one of the best pasta dishes in town.

panfried snakehead, cauliflower, beluga lentils, romesco
It was hard to find fault with anything on our two visits to True Chesapeake. Everything we tried was excellent, from the raw oysters to the duck fat-roasted monkfish. I will quibble, however, that the yogurt panna cotta dessert didn't contain enough gelatin to be an actual panna cotta, and the ice cream sundae dessert may have been a bit on the enormous side. (They were both delicious, though.)

panna cotta
I would be remiss not to mention the bar program, which is in the hands of Chelsea Gregoire. We were fans of her inventive beverages during her time at the Hotel Revival; True Chesapeake also benefits from her creativity. The restaurant got a boost when Gregoire was named Esquire Magazine's Beverage Director of the Year, which is rather a Big Thing and so well deserved. Congrats to Chelsea!

True Chesapeake Oyster Company
Historic Whitehall Mill
3300 Clipper Mill Road

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