Last year, oyster farmer and restaurateur Travis Croxton swam upstream from further down South and brought a new iteration of his restaurants to the D.C. area. Even under a different name than his Rocksalt concept, Brine has stayed true to the restaurant trio's roots, featuring sustainably-sourced mid-Atlantic seafood and local meat and produce.
The spacious, seafood-centric spot is equipped with a wood-fired grill and rotisserie, so the menu features whole fish and roasts in addition to the expected raw fare from Croxton's oyster company, Rappahannock River Oysters. Rappahannock's focus on rebuilding the Virginia oyster industry with eco-friendly aquaculture has recently been taken a step further with an experiment to bring back the nearly extinct Chesapeake Bay scallop.
Brine reaps the rewards from this endeavor, but it also puts an emphasis on supporting fishermen by buying and serving fish that are found in this region, rather than the ever-popular salmon, halibut, and cod that don't call the mid-Atlantic home.
Eater asked Owner Travis Croxton and Executive Chef John Critchley about Brine's philosophy and the first year of business in the Mosaic District.
Brine is the third restaurant in your trio. How have you differentiated this concept from the two more Southern Rocksalt sister restaurants?
Travis Croxton: It's got a different name... (laughs) This one was fully [John's] own, from start to finish. So I think this is his food. In my opinion, that's kind of what separates it.
John Critchley: Really, we've had a few guidelines, if any, so that we can allow the chefs to have fun with whatever's locally growing around them...So here, we wanted to make this a little more metropolitan, or that's how I thought about it. The menus are very similar in format at all three places now, but the content just changes. We have our raw preparations of seafood, we have our cooked seafood, we always have a good steak. Two places have a rotisserie, so we take advantage of that, whereas Charlotte does not — it's not big enough for a rotisserie...But here we've been able to make it a little more metropolitan, or a little more refined, I guess, when it comes to some of the dishes that I like to produce on the composed ones. So you have really rustic whole fish on a plate with some great sides, but then you also have things like the plankton pasta with clams, and a lot going on in one little dish.
TC: Each place, we want to have the emphasis on mid-Atlantic seafood, but then local purveyors otherwise.
JC: I grew up in New England and I used to work on an oyster farm, too, so I brought a few friends from New England that grow oysters as well for here. Also, you'll see some things shellfish-wise, not like a boiled lobster dinner or anything, but you'll see sea urchins and some other things from New England, just as part of my history, in these menus here versus Charlottesville and Charlotte.
The focus of Brine is local sourcing. There's been a lot of buzz lately about how "farm-to-table" is often just a gimmick. What do you do to ensure that it's more than that here?
TC: I knew John was the right fit for me when we opened up and someone asked him about that. He's like, "you know, instead of putting it on chalkboards or on the menu, I think people trust us to do the right thing."...Our servers are educated to explain it, but we don't beat people over the head with it. We just do it.
Hopefully they come in and look at our draft list, see that these are all local breweries. They look at the fish we have — there's no salmon, there's no tilapia, there's nothing like that on there. We try to have different things that people don't have. You know, croaker, blue fish, Spanish mackerel, things like that that we should be eating. We're trying to do the next step. With the oyster company, I talk about it all the time. Sustainable is not enough anymore. You have to be restorative. And so I think for us, it's easy to carry the same fish that everyone else has because that's what the industry's geared towards, but these fishermen could actually have a better life if they were able to sell what's actually physically in the water that they're in all the time. So like Spanish mackerel, bluefish, spot. That's what we want to change and push.
How is the bounty from Rappahannock River Oysters, your Virginia oyster farming company, featured in the restaurant?
TC: We sell all the oysters that I farm here. That's actually another unique thing about Brine. All the other restaurants, I just sell my oysters. I've actually tried on occasion to sell others, but customers aren't receptive. So it took John actually being able to come in here and educate staff and customers...Ours are the feature, then there's three or four or five other ones that we rotate in. The Rappahannocks are the happy hour oyster, which brings in a lot of people.
Are the scallops the biggest new thing for Rappahannock River Oysters? Are there other developments in the pipeline?
TC: Scallops are going to be huge. Not volume, but just in terms of bringing back something that's extinct from the Chesapeake Bay. So that's going to be a lot of fun. We just bought a property on the York River...so we're going to increase that production...It's a great oyster, a meaty oyster. It's a chef favorite, so we're excited about ramping that production up. We're actually going to call it Rochambeau, which is a French General that kind of saved us in Yorktown, but it's also a very crude chef term in the kitchen.
How do you feel about this location in the Mosaic District? What has been the overall reception from the community?
TC: We're in what they call the second phase [of the development], so it's been hard for people to find us. We get phone calls, "Where are you guys? I'm in Mosaic, but I can't find you guys." We're still seeing probably tons of first time diners, which is good, because it means that we haven't even tipped the iceberg of what we could do. So right now, you see there's construction going on, so I won't lie about it and say everything's fantastic. We just got to get through — in the long term it'll be fantastic, you know, more apartments and condos and stuff, and more retail, but for right now it's just a matter of just trying to get traffic to recognize that we're here.
How has Brine's menu evolved over the past year?
JC: The menu, I feel, changes not only seasonally, but it changes based on the feedback that we get... So always going back and looking at what worked last year, now that we have a year, what worked last year, what didn't, and we can keep going. Or what do people want to see more of? Do they want to see more composed rockfish dishes, or do they just want rockfish on a grill? So that's how we keep evolving it.
As far as it actually evolving, the physical part of it, we added more [from] our rotisseries...and then I also took the whole ‘simple fish' part and I put it on it's own separate card to give people so it had more descriptions of what the fish are, and then there's, like a little sushi card, there's little check marks on what's available that day. And it's just constantly changing.
What have been the highlights or fan favorites?
JC: The burger. The hamburger has won many, many competitions.
TC: It's a bit tough to swallow — being a seafood guy — having a burger be the best thing on the menu, but it's fantastic.
JC: From the very first day that Travis was like, "I've got a raw bar with a wood grill," I'm like, "perfect." Because my idea of a great meal is a dozen oysters, a beer, and a burger. And that's my, if I could have a meal, that's what I would have. The burger's been great, the plankton bucatini that we started off with, is now fettuccine, but it's like a pasta and clams, but done really fun. A lot of flavors going on and a lot of natural umami flavors. Our tuna tartare has been great, our carpaccio was great, our poke was great. Anything we've done with tuna.
What have been some of the challenges with opening Brine?
TC: We talked about the location...But I would say front of house staffing, too. Because in DC, you have the career servers. Out here, you either have people that have bounced around, or people that you have to cultivate. So I think we've learned a lesson and now we're really getting into cultivation mode.
JC: There's a lot of things that a server would need to know when a guest is coming in here for the first time. And that's been probably our biggest struggle, is how do we get that information out there, streamlined, without putting all the farms on the menu and all that stuff? How do we truly make them feel comfortable? Because there's a lot. It's a lot to know. It's not your halibut, it's not your salmon. It's croakers, it's perch, it's things that people aren't used to eating in general...And that for me has been the biggest struggle, besides being able to handle 200 people who come in within 45 minutes.
Some of the things were more cosmetic, like the sound. When we opened, we're like, this is a big beautiful space, and then we filled it up, and it was a really echo-y big space. So we put in our sound panels and it absorbs all the echoes. It still keeps the vibe lively — sometimes a little too lively, may need to find a few more — but those are the things that I never really anticipated, because we've never opened a 5,000 square foot [restaurant] with 20-foot-tall ceilings.
What can diners expect from Brine in the coming year?
TC: I think we're just now finally stabilized and everything, so I think we're just going to get better, more consistent with everything, and more awareness of where we are... So we're going to ramp up pretty well and then keep emphasis on our craft cocktails, local beers, and great seafood. I'm excited, with the other locations, we developed some fishermen friendships that we hope to leverage up here also.
JC: We're going to be launching our more intimate tasting menus at our raw bar, which will be available Thursday, Friday, Saturdays. So now... I'm able to actually shake off one of the sous chefs to work on the raw bar and really push what I feel a raw bar can do, which is to blend that maybe combination sashimi bar with raw oysters too, and have a fun almost omakase style menu. 'Cause that's what our regulars really want.