In the summertime, a diner’s fancy may not lightly turn to thoughts of hot soup, but there are enough Charleston visitors with a taste for she-crab to keep line cooks simmering heavy cream throughout July and August. One of the many contributions to the city’s dining scene made by Rappahannock Oyster Bar, newly installed at The Cigar Factory, is the persuasive demonstration that there is a saner way of doing things.
At Rappahannock, chef Kevin Kelly, who was plucked from the Virginia-based shellfish farm’s acclaimed Washington, D.C., raw bar, serves an alluring white gazpacho that’s actually closer in color to pistachio ice cream. White gazpacho, or ajoblanco, is an ancient Spanish soup style consisting of pulverized almonds, olive oil and garlic. Whether adding grapes and cucumbers to the mix undermines its claim to white gazpacho status is immaterial, since the resulting slinky soup exemplifies green in a way that the juice of 1,000 kale leaves could only hope to match.
But this gossamer gazpacho doesn’t have any designs on the health food category. It’s decorated with broad pieces of chilled blue crab meat and dashed with savory Manzanilla that’s good company for the soup’s fundamental nuttiness.
Crab and sherry, cloaked in vegetables instead of cream. The soup might well be the she-crab of its generation.
That kind of freshness, in both ingredient and thought, is what distinguishes Rappahannock Oyster Bar. In its first few months, the restaurant hasn’t consistently drawn the heavy traffic it so anxiously anticipated that it declined to issue a dedicated lunch menu, for fear of an overcrowded dining room. Perhaps it’s because local residents are wary of a restaurant with roots elsewhere, or because it’s not on tourists’ walk-by routes. In any case, Rappahannock shouldn’t stay quiet for long.
Like its crosstown analogue, 167 Raw, another seafood sanctuary that got its start north of South Carolina, Rappahannock opened offering both retail sales and seated dining. Rappahannock’s dimensions are much vaster, though, so it can stock a freestanding wall’s worth of wine, in addition to a changing selection of fish and shellfish on ice. Still, it’s easy to get distracted by the comfortably rustic dining room or copper-topped horseshoe bar beyond, both of which present seafood already-prepared.
If your overriding interest is in exploring Rappahannock’s energetic wine list, including a considered selection of offbeat sherries and vermouths dosed in three-ounce sampling pours, a bar seat makes sense. As throughout the restaurant, the employees stationed there are knowledgeable and warm.
Yet nearly every other objective calls for the patio, at least when the weather’s cooperative. Right now, al fresco diners get an eyeful of the ample parking lot, which is possibly the prettiest sight imaginable for people weary of downtown parking tribulations, but the restaurant is planning to landscape so the tables add up to something more like a proper dining area.
Even absent those aesthetic touches, the restaurant’s remove from the street creates a very relaxed mood. It’s the ideal setting for a seafood platter, sold in three different sizes. The starter portion, priced at $30, features four head-on shrimp, positioned guardsmen-like around an apothecary bottle of housemade Sriracha; four jarred mussels; six clams; and six oysters, with sea beans strewn about. On the night I tried it, the shrimp and mussels tasted slightly slack, but the bivalves brimmed with might and brine.
Appetizers that have run up against heat are equally fine, including plump grilled oysters soaked with jalapeno butter and smoked fish dip with a texture as coarse as its seasoning is refined. Just for fun, apparently, Rappahannock also excels at dishes that have nothing to do with the sea, such as a gargantuan charred radicchio salad that engagingly contrasts warm bitter greens with cool, salty sheep’s milk cheese. There’s also a quail egg-topped and onion-rich beef tartare, seated in a dollop too much buttermilk, but otherwise carefully assembled.
At this point, beef tartare is almost as obligatory for a serious Charleston restaurant as a certificate of occupancy and impressive by-the-glass rose. Rappahannock also fulfills its implicit dish duties with pork belly, accompanied by a pleasingly squishy farro; crab cakes; and shrimp-and-grits, as well as Root Baking Co. bread. Where things get more interesting is around the point on the menu where “Lambs & Clams” arrives.
A longstanding Rappahannock greatest hit, the intentionally messy stew stars half a dozen gaping clams, their shells draped with meaty pigeon peas and crumbled bits of earthy lamb sausage. The vibrant garlicky broth beneath is tomato-based, but spicier than what might undergird a typical bouillabaisse. In other words, planks of grilled bread perched on the edge of the dish aren’t merely for show.
Charred octopus looks complicated. Two inward-curling leg segments share a plate with a laboriously layered and crisped block of buttery potato pave, mustardy polka dots and wisps of white foam. Yet the flavors surrounding the tender meat are utterly playful: The mishmash of mustard, potatoes and spume put me in mind of a German tourist on a beach vacation.
Simpler, but just as lovely, is the whole fish. The beeliner snapper I sampled was perfectly cooked, with crisp skin and tender flesh, a combination that never gets boring. Radically minimalist rudderfish crudo was exceptional, as was a tart and taut red snapper tartare that bent eastward with the help of ginger and yuzu.
Nothing about Rappahannock feels like a new restaurant. It has the polish which comes with being the fifth location in what’s now — 16 years after cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton set out to revive their family’s century-old Chesapeake oyster operation — a legitimate chain. A sixth store is scheduled to open later this year in Los Angeles.
But Rappahannock has the advantage of accomplished source material and a commitment to not sacrifice what made it special: Think of the difference between cheap knock-offs of brand-name tween clothing and Roman replicas of Greek sculpture. So Charleston’s Rappahannock Oyster Bar isn’t exactly original. Thanks to Kelly’s kitchen talents and general manager Brad Mogan’s steady control of the dining room, it’s already realizing its potential to do things which are exciting and new.