This Hyper-Sustainable DC Restaurant Is Mid-Atlantic Local Done Right
Featuring: Sea salt that tastes like summer at the Jersey Shore
Chef Rob Rubba had been working in professional kitchens for 17 years before, frustrated with the wastefulness plaguing the industry, he decided to make a major change.
“I had this essential moment where I was like, ‘I’m gonna become a vegetarian,’” he says. He began imagining a vegetarian tasting menu of bold, enticing, exciting offerings: carrot steaks, eggplant schnitzel, earthy oyster mushrooms — all ultra-local, sustainable produce. But the menu also features one item that would make most vegetarians balk: oysters.
The “oystertarian” diet basically boils down to vegan plus oysters, but this is a far cry from vegetarians who sometimes eat bacon. Oysters seem to exist within a natural loophole: unlike other members of the animal kingdom, oysters thrive in factory-farm cages and, lacking a central nervous system, feel no pain. And on the sustainability side, oysters have even most plants beat: After all, farming oysters isn’t just carbon neutral — it’s actually beneficial to the environment.
Most importantly, for Rubba, oysters are sustainable and local to the DC area — the perfect item to feature on his hyper-local oystertarian menu.
Sustainability is, after all, the name of the game at Rubba’s Oyster Oyster, which gets its name from both the terroir and merroir of the surrounding region: Here, mushrooms and bivalves represent “this yin yang of sustainability,” according to the chef.
“I don’t think we would do Oyster Oyster somewhere else, like in the middle of the country,” he says. “Here, oysters give such a beneficial impact back to the environment, just combating waste damage from certain storms, or the symbiotic nature of them building a reef and just creating this hotel for so many other species of life. It really tied into what we were doing, and our ethos, and kind of became this … bat signal.”
Of course, Rubba’s ethos doesn’t stop at oysters. He considers the provenance of every ingredient he uses, from sunflower oil hailing from Susquehanna Farms in Pennsylvania to sea salt harvested in Delaware.
“I’ve never had a sea salt that fresh,” he says. “I grew up along the beach in New Jersey, and when I first tasted this salt, it felt like the time when I was a little kid and got kind of dunked under the waves, and water went up my nose. It just had that real brininess and flavor of the region, and it’s so exciting to be seasoning with something that has flavor beyond just, like, salinity.”
In keeping with this philosophy, the restaurant eschews common ingredients from elsewhere, like olive oil and citrus.
“We set these parameters, these boundaries,” Rubba says, “and the amount of creativity that comes out of that, when you can’t be that kid at the candy shop is awesome. There’s a lot of failure, but through that failure, there’s always this eureka moment that pops up.”
To replace lemons, for example, he uses lemon balm and lemon verbena for their aroma and local vinegars from Pennsylvania for acidity.
He’s also happy to rely on local purveyors who care as much about sustainability as he does. Much of his produce comes from Erik Schlener of Root & Marrow, a small acreage, bio-intensive farm in Lovettsville, Virginia. After earning his stripes managing a 10-acre organic farm, Schlener started his own venture in 2018, selling to restaurants and directly to consumers via a CSA.
“Every restaurant’s a little bit different; there’s no real standard,” he explains. “Basically what I try to do is align what I’m doing with the chef.”
Schlener notes that he’ll frequently spot something on the land and text Rubba a photo to see if it inspires him.
“It’s a really cool kind of partnership,” he says. “To get to be the eyes for him.”
Rubba, for his part, embraces such challenges.
“I think it’s a nice other side of the coin,” he says, “where the farmer is kind of like, ‘Hey, I have this.’ Where in the other world, the chef goes onto his website and orders whatever he wants from the entire world.”
One recent example? Coriander stems, which Schlener says are often relegated to the compost heap, but Rubba has found are perfect for pickling. Young green coriander, meanwhile, is brined and transformed into a house-made caper replacement: the perfect thing to stock in the pantry for winter months, alongside preserved chilies to reduce his reliance on black pepper.
For Schlener, Rubba really walks the walk of sustainability.
“It’s not just about the fad for him,” he says.
Perhaps because the ethos is so ingrained, Rubba is happy to deviate from the ultra-local mindset when it makes sense from a sustainability perspective. A prime example is the restaurant’s use of sea vegetables sourced from Connecticut.
“They really have zero impact,” he says. “And in terms of staying hyper local with that … what happens in Connecticut, in the end, will affect the water we have down here too. So it’s all connected.”
Another place where Oyster Oyster allows itself to source a bit further afield is in its beverage program.
“We’re in an urban metropolitan area; there’s expectations of what a restaurant should be,” says Rubba. While there are no cocktails on the menu — too reliant on citrus — and local ciders and beers abound (including an oyster mushroom and oyster yeast hybrid saison from Black Marrow in Chincoteague), Rubba notes that “we do kind of visit the world” when it comes to wine, which is nevertheless sourced from clean, natural, and biodynamic producers whenever possible.
“It’s very important to us to highlight these winemakers because they’re doing things correctly as well,” says Rubba.
In the past year, like many restaurateurs, Rubba has had to bounce back again and again — especially given that pre-pandemic, Oyster Oyster had never even opened its doors to the public. He scrapped the tasting menu that defines the restaurant today in favor of vegetarian comfort food dishes — pizza, sandwiches, plays on TV dinners — sold in “actually compostable” containers, which diners were encouraged to bring back for processing by the restaurant’s commercial composting program.
“I think it captivated a lot of our guests,” says Rubba, “and now they come in and eat the food that we intended to serve and people were like, ‘Oh the takeout was good but this is amazing!’”
Today, summer’s bounty defines the seven-course, $70 tasting menu.
“We plan to probably have six bold changes through the year, and then, throughout the season, there’s probably … 52 little changes,” says Rubba. “Things come and go so fast sometimes, and there’s a really sweet spot where things are amazing and you have to serve them at that time in a very specific way, and after that they kind of lose the magic.”
A ripe, juicy peach on a hot summer’s day; a fresh oyster just out of the bay. That’s the sort of nostalgia and flavor Rubba hopes to capture with each new creation.
“We just hope more people get on board with this,” he continues. “We don’t do it to be novel or unique; we do it because we want more restaurants and individuals to grasp onto it, and it’s good for everyone.”
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