When John Shields returned from the West Coast 12 years ago to open Gertrude's, he wanted to feature fresh coastal food cooked with local ingredients in the Baltimore restaurant. He bought Chesapeake Bay crabmeat, vegetables from the city farmer's markets - even shrimp farm-raised on the Eastern Shore.
But the oysters were often from elsewhere. Prince Edward Island. Nova Scotia. Connecticut. Occasionally, Shields did serve the wild-caught Bay oysters, but the availability and the quality were inconsistent. Shields, who is also a television show host and has written cookbooks, asked the watermen he knew why no one was farming oysters in the Chesapeake, like it is done in California. They told him it wouldn't work.
"I was under the impression it was impossible to farm oysters here," Shields said. "I took them at their word, that it couldn't be done."
That changed a few years ago, when an oyster farmer - Shields doesn't remember who - walked into Gertrude's with a cooler of ice, set it down and shucked a few beautiful oysters. The veteran chef loved that the oysters were raised sustainably. But what sold him was the taste: The oysters, he said, were fantastic.
Customers agreed. Fried oysters are one of Gertrude's most popular dishes, and Shields' chefs were soon shucking about 500 a week. Shields now offers several farm-raised varieties, including Choptank Sweets, Uncle Ernie's Tangier Sound Oysters and Olde Salts from the Rappahannock River Oyster Co.
About a half-dozen Baltimore restaurants serve oysters raised in the Chesapeake Bay, including some of the choicest tables in the city. They include Oceanaire, a posh seafood chain in chi-chi Harbor East, Ryleigh's Oyster Bar in Federal Hill, and Woodberry Kitchen, a perennial on "best restaurants" lists that specializes in local ingredients.
The trend has spread to Virginia fine-dining establishments, including Gloucester's Rivers Inn and Richmond's Lemaire Restaurant.
"Having the Chesapeake Bay in our backyard, it would be irresponsible not to showcase the oysters that come out of the water here," said Oceanaire chef John Taylor, who previously worked with oyster farmers at the chain's Boston outpost.
The idea of oyster choice is not new to chefs who have worked elsewhere. Almost everywhere in the world, oysters are farmed. A diner would no more be satisfied with the choice of one kind of oyster than one kind of generic red wine. Indeed, Taylor speaks of a merroir for oysters, similar to the terroir for wine, which tells a connoisseur what kind of soil the grape was grown in and what sort of climate. An oyster's merroir, Taylor said, tells a customer if the water is fresh or salty, and what kind of minerals it has acquired in growth.
Restaurants like Oceanaire and Woodberry may have a customer wondering where the recession has gone. At Woodberry, it's hard to get a table, even on a weeknight. At Oceanaire, dinner for two, without dessert, can easily run north of $112. Even at the more moderately priced Gertrude's and Ryleigh's, the oysters aren't what you'd call cheap - at least not compared to 30 years ago, when a dockworker might down a dozen with a cheap beer and call it breakfast.
That may be part of the reason why it's hard to find a restaurant with the staples that Shields' Grandmother Gertrude once cooked. Scalloped oysters, oyster stew and oyster dressing used to be common foods on U.S. tables. But at $20 a pint for shucked oysters, few can afford to routinely cook those dishes now.
Oysters began to recede from Baltimore menus as the wild fishery crashed in the 1980s. The growing half-shell market has put them back on the table. And as word spreads about the quality and sustainability of the farm-raised oysters, chefs and wholesalers predict more restaurants will offer them.
Chefs like Shields and Woodberry's Spike Gjerde are "like voices crying in the wilderness," said Gaylord Clark, a longtime commercial fisherman on both coasts who now runs a sustainable seafood and farm business in Baltimore and supplies Woodberry Kitchen. Clark became aware of oyster farming in the Chesapeake after a visit to Richard Pelz' Circle C Oyster Ranch in Southern Maryland. He saw the oysters thriving in floats - and the marine life that grew up around them. He tasted the product. He became convinced there was no better way to grow oysters.
"The people who come to get the oysters are uniformly bowled over," Clark said. "The cups are deep, the oysters are tender and firm, the shells are clean and they're relatively thin. They don't look like something you would chuck over the bow of a skiff as an anchor."
"They're just outstanding," he added. "There's no question about it."