Executive chef Autumn Cline didn’t have to look far to find inspiration for her latest project, the Rappahannock Oyster Bar at the Wharf development. The restaurant overlooks the Washington Channel, sits among historic seafood stands in the Maine Avenue Fish Market, and resides in a restored oyster shed that dates back to 1912.
“I wanted it to feel like an oyster house on the water, and all the dishes reflect that,” she says.
Cline also oversees the menu at the D.C. area’s first Rappahannock Oyster Bar, which is inside Union Market, but new dishes make up more than half of the menu at the outpost on the Southwest waterfront. Cline describes her menu philosophy as “classic dishes, with a creative or interesting twist.” For example, she wants to give guests the comfort of a familiar shrimp cocktail, but swaps out the ketchup-based sauce for a sour cream and mayonnaise-based “salsa blanca.” She has a crab dip full of corn and gruyere cheese.
Cline loves the history of the glass-enclosed building, but tiny shed near the water comes with its own set of challenges. There is no freezer, and a small kitchen creates major space constraints, including almost no walk-in refrigeration.
“We’ve had to get creative with prep schedules,” Cline says.
The restaurant’s success on a given night often depends on the weather. The schedule of the Anthem music venue just a few steps away also creates big swings in service. But Cline has been pleasantly surprised by the positive response from locals.
“We have regulars already,” she says.
Since opening in December, Rappahannock has made minimal changes to the menu. But Cline has a few more tricks up her sleeve. She’s still tweaking a surf-and-turf dish — she knows she wants to use pork blade steak, but the swimming half of the combo has yet to be determined. She’ll likely also add a seared scalloped dish, and possibly another crudo.
In the meantime, here’s a tour of the dishes that help this incarnation of Rappahannock Oyster Bar stand on its own.
The Wharf location emphasizes raw items even more than other restaurants in the group (there’s an entire section devoted to seafood towers). The Union Market location has a crudo as well, but theirs is closer to a Spanish version. For this dish ($17), Cline wanted to create something “more tropical as we transition to the summer months.” The cobia is tossed with aji amarillo (yellow hot pepper paste), guava, shallots, chile, hazelnut oil, basil oil, grains of paradise, and curly scallions. The effect is more savory than some other crudos, she says: “You get that heat, you get umami, you get the fruitiness from the guava.” It’s served in an abalone shell — not unlike the ones Cline used to keep jewelry in as a child. Using the shells was an idea she originally intended for the restaurant’s caviar service. “People point to it and say, ‘I want that,’” she said.
Lambs and Clams
Some version of this dish ($21) appears at all six of Rappahannock’s locations, which range from Richmond to Los Angeles. (Co-owner Travis Croxton is also behind Brine in Merrifield). The lamb and clams at the Wharf mirrors the one Cline serves at Union Market, where the seafood mixes with merguez sausage, braised pigeon peas, roasted garlic aioli, and a grilled baguette. “It does well in the winter months,” Cline says. “Soaking up that bread in the delicious sauce — what’s not to like?” Customers often buy extra sides of bread when they want to keep on dipping ($1.50).
“I didn’t want to serve a shrimp cocktail with cocktail sauce,” Cline says, referring to a desire to avoid the staid steakhouse standby. Instead, she turned to an unlikely source for inspiration: a white sauce she used to eat as a kid at Mexican restaurants in Southwest Virginia. Cline’s own “salsa blanca” mixes in Mexican oregano, cumin and cayenne, and is garnished with jalapeno, red onion, tomato, and cilantro. Dipping the shrimp in the mixture creates a more traditional salsa flavor when the ingredients are combined ($17 for six shrimp).
Clines says that regulars and Rappahannock investors alike have been bugging her to put a crab dip on the menu, “literally for years.” She got sick enough of hearing it to finally develop one of her own. Cline and executive sous chef Mikey Fabian tested several recipes, ultimately combining elements of Fabian’s grandmother’s crab dip and another recipe they found online. Served in a cast iron skillet, the dish combines lump crab, roasted corn, pickled jalapenos, and gruyere cheese. Homemade tortilla chips come on the side for scooping. The chiles add a spike of subtle heat. The chefs just happened to have corn on hand when recipe testing, and found that it worked well. In the 30-seat restaurant, it’s not unusual for them to serve between 16-30 crab dips a day.
The Rappahannock Burger
“I didn’t want to put a burger on the menu,” Cline admitted. Her restaurant is right by Shake Shack, after all. But Croxton insisted, and Cline says it was probably the right call. “People absolutely love it,” she said. She makes her burger ($18) out of aged beef sourced from Virginia’s Seven Hills Farm, then tops it with shredded iceberg lettuce, dill pickles, two slices of American cheese, and a “special sauce,” all on a sesame seed bun. “It’s very very classic. I try not to mess with perfection,” Cline says. Because the restaurant doesn’t have a freezer or much prep space, the fries are not hand-cut. Her original plan for shoestring fries didn’t hold up well under those conditions, either. Instead, the fries she ended up with are thicker, and seasoned with Old Bay. “I am if nothing else, a French fry connoisseur,” she says. Between 12-20 people order the burger each day.
“When the product is good, let it speak for itself,” Cline says. She brought that philosophy to a crab cake ($29) made with as little filler as possible. Combing both lump grade and jumbo lump grade crab meat varies the texture. Cline tops the classic with a remoulade containing capers, tarragon, and red onion. It comes perched on top of a celery root slaw.