By Amanda Grace Johnson - 02/12/09 05:36 PM EST
Set one foot in the door of BlackSalt Fish Market & Restaurant, and it immediately becomes clear: This ain’t your mama’s grocery.
Nested alluringly atop crystalline piles of ice are skate-wing fillets and baby octopus; sashimi-grade tuna curls up next to fresh calamari and bronzini. I count at least five different types of shrimp — which beats the usual pick between cooked or raw.
On this unseasonably warm February afternoon, though, it’s crucial not to get distracted by all this fresh catch — we’re here on business. Oyster-tasting business, that is.
Three stations are set up along the winding walls. Experts position themselves beside and behind each area to serve the chilled delicacies and other savory snacks: fried oysters drizzled with sambal chili aioli and flatbread with house-made hummus and smoked tuna tapenade, to be (delectably) precise.
The event staff tells us to dig in; pandemonium ensues. “It’s a free-for-all, I guess,” one patron jokes, as throngs of hungry bivalve enthusiasts scramble toward the stations, grabbing at shucked oysters and glasses of wine.
The Chincoteague salt oyster is not only the first in the line, but also my personal first — ever. Thankfully, BlackSalt general manager Todd Tooms is helpfully assisting the novices. He retrieves a plate with the Chincoteague variety and another mollusk, and the first oyster goes down smoothly.
It’s mild, with an unexpectedly gentle saltiness, and not nearly as fishy as expected; the raw Chesapeake Bay oyster is brinier and more moist. Both are served with a generous glass of Muscadet, a crisp, dry white wine made from a grape called the melon de bourgogne, which hails from the Loire Valley region of France. The pairing approaches perfection — acidic, tart and tangy, the wine cuts through the saltiness of the seafood.
The Blue Point variety proves to be the most saline of the bunch. An expert remarks that “true Blue Points” are harvested on the New York side of Long Island Sound, whereas this hails from Connecticut. Next up is the Long Island version, and honestly, there is no remarkable difference between them in taste.
Various regions are well-represented here: Island Creek oysters from Duxbury Bay, Mass., and Malpeque oysters from Canada’s Prince Edward Island; Olympic Miyagi oysters from Puget Sound, Wash., and Sister Point oysters from Hood Canal, a fjord off Puget Sound.
The Pacific Coast varieties are more hearty and buttery, and pleasantly surprising are the varieties of texture and taste, which rely heavily on the salinity of the water in which they’re harvested. The Choptank Sweet oyster, having traveled to D.C. from Cambridge, Md., on the Eastern Shore, is meatier than others, and goes down easily, without unpleasant aftertaste.
Yes, they are cold and slimy. Yes, they are wet and quivery. Yes, their damp, gray appearance is slightly unappetizing.
But they are satisfying. Addictive. And before I know it, I’m wandering from station to station, pouring meat from the shells down my throat like a professional. Still, it’d be nice to have a wider variety of dressings at hand. There are lemon wedges, but where is the Tabasco sauce? (Now I see what all the fuss is about.)
“They’re very fresh,” says one senior Senate staffer who claims to be a connoisseur. “This is my first one,” another aide chimes in. He says he’s not a big oyster fan but looks like he’s really enjoying them— and his wine — while BlackSalt fishmonger Scott Weinstein surveys the crowd with a pleased grin.
It’s a mystery how the proprietors of BlackSalt keep the restaurant from stinking, what with all the raw fish. Even more incredible is that the fare doesn’t taint the restaurant’s sumptuous, upscale ambience.
Past the market, positioned at the front of the restaurant, lies an elegant dining room with a rectangular skylight that simulates the feel of being on the other side of an aquarium. Earthy browns and beiges warm the room — a pleasing departure from the clichéd blue-and-green theme employed by many an oceanic eatery.
Oyster eaters, professional or not, find here an experience all their own.