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Appalachian Heritage Farm pork belly with shell beans, apples and salsa verde Photo by Isaac Harrell
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Photo by Isaac Harrell
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Baked Rappahannock River oysters with Italian kale, Benton's bacon and celery root cream. Photo by Isaac Harrell
Traces of wood smoke waft through the air, giving texture and dimension to the open space. A scene Edward Hopper would capture from the exterior looking in. Muted colors disappearing into the background. The play of light across the polished surface of the dark concrete bar. You might believe this place has been here since the '40s. The aesthetic is timelessness itself: simple, clean, enduring beyond trends. The black-and-white photographs of oyster boats and watermen supply the only decoration in the place, hinting at their singularity of focus. Thanks to Travis and Ryan Croxton's efforts to preserve and restore their grandfather's oyster beds in Virginia rivers, it's impossible to put a date on the scene.
Though it's hard to miss the emphasis on seafood, the menu is surprisingly wide ranging. On recent visits, I sampled a perfectly medium-rare hanger steak with baby turnips and melted leeks, and a Border Springs Farm lamb burger on brioche with candied onions and harissa aïoli. You'll find a Harmony Hill Farms chicken with oyster mushrooms, fava beans and tapenade, perfect for sharing. And if following foodie trends is your thing, they have an Appalachian Heritage Farm pork belly with shell beans, apples and salsa verde. You'll notice that the menu is dominated by local purveyors for everything from lamb to mushrooms; it's a promise often made, yet rarely executed to this degree.
The real reason to go to Rappahannock is obvious — they have the best oysters around, hands down, no contest. With three to four varieties on hand at any time, you can indulge your bivalve fetish and really explore differences in texture, flavor and salinity. The staff all seem to know their oyster-business, and the shucking seemed nearly flawless — plenty of liquor and only once did I find a tiny bit of chipped shell. The homemade horseradish and mignonette are superfluous — skip them. These are stand-all-on-their-own-flavor beauties here — don't cover them up. At $2-a-pop, you can put away dozens with your friends happily. Or try Chef Dylan Fultinteer's Oysters and Pearls, a half dozen Rappahannocks topped with trout caviar.
The baked Rappahannock River oysters were similar to oysters Rockefeller, but with Italian kale, Benton's bacon and celery root cream, it really seems a waste to cover over something this good, even if it does involve bacon. The grilled Outer Banks shrimp with a crispy grits cake and red mole is a better bet in my book. Served with the head on, these jumbo prawns taste pleasantly of wood smoke and sea salt — a nice play on shrimp and grits.
And speaking of wood smoke, the chicken, pork belly, hanger steak and lamb described above are all prepared over a wood-fired grill. The whole fish, recently branzino, and the Virginia scallops with braised oxtail and roasted cauliflower are prepared this way to a remarkably pleasing result. This combination smoke and surf gives Rappahannock its signature flavor, one that carves its own niche in our already vibrant downtown restaurant culture. And at the risk of sounding like a critic who's forgotten to be critical, I have to say that there's a crowded field emerging in the race for best new restaurant in RVA, and for me, Rappahannock is a serious contender.
This is the most positive local sourcing story that I am aware of. Although it's hard to say whether a commitment to sustaining one's own supply of product and profit could be seen as truly altruistic, in this case it's also irrelevant; as long as they continue to ensure it goes on, we all benefit from their hard work. Who knows, a hundred years from now, my great-grandchild might just sit down to a dozen Olde Salts at this same bar. I certainly hope they'll be so lucky.
320 E. Grace St., 545-0565, facebook.com/RappahannockRVA
Hours: Tuesday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 to 11:00 p.m.; Saturday 5 to 11 p.m.; Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Prices : Starters and salads $2 to $18; entrées $11 to $22