A Fine Kettle of Fish

Review of The Grilled Oyster Company in Potomac's Cabin John Shopping Center

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There are a lot of things to like about The Grilled Oyster Company, which opened in Potomac’s Cabin John Shopping Center & Mall in September. First, the parking: It’s not only ample, it’s free—a boon to diners weary of construction reroutes, traffic and scarce parking in downtown Bethesda.

Easy access isn’t the only thing that makes the restaurant such a delightful destination, however. It’s one of those comfortable, mid-priced places that also happen to serve good food. I love the Eastern Shore concept, a reflection of owners Rick and Valerie Dugan’s passion for sailing on the Chesapeake Bay.

The Dugans originally met in 1993 at the old O’Donnell’s seafood restaurant in Bethesda, where they both worked at the time. The couple later did a stint at the O’Donnell’s Sea Grill in Gaithersburg.

Rick Dugan most recently was the general manager of the BRIO Tuscan Grille in North Bethesda Market, but he also helped open Clyde’s in Chevy Chase. With their joint experience in restaurant management, the two had been looking to open their own place for a while, and the former Pomegranate Bistro, which closed in April, offered just the right size and location.

The seafood-centric menu, executed by Chef Chris Morris, another O’Donnell’s Sea Grill alumnus, offers a raw bar, small plates, soups, salads, sandwiches and entrées.

Best bet is to go fish; the salads and side dishes don’t always rise to the same standard.

Stick to anything with oysters. As the restaurant’s name suggests, it doesn’t just offer them raw: Grilled oysters come Rockefeller-style (spinach, Parmesan, bacon, Pernod cream); with barbecue sauce and chilled cucumber relish; or with andouille sausage, spinach and green chili hollandaise. Of course, the appetizer becomes more about the toppings when the mollusks are cooked and covered, but you can’t go wrong with any of the spicy and/or creamy combinations.

If I’m going with cooked, however, I’d rather have those huge Chesapeake Bay oysters in one of the other starters: fried to a crunchy, golden brown; tucked among the other goodies in the thick and creamy Chesapeake chowder; or grilled and wrapped in bacon as part of the applewood bacon-wrapped trio.

Shrimp and scallops also wear crisp bacon robes in that last A-plus starter, which is accessorized with a bed of Asian-influenced slaw—cabbage mixed with a lively combination of sesame oil, rice vinegar, cilantro, mint, lime and jalapeno.

The best main course I tried was the Chesapeake cioppino, a bowl jam-packed with fresh-tasting, high-quality crab, shrimp, clams, mussels, rockfish and diced vegetables in a well-seasoned tomato broth. The two slices of garlic toast for dipping didn’t last long.

Maryland’s signature dish, crabcakes, can be ordered either as an entrée or a sandwich. Either way, the lump crab chunks—mixed with Old Bay, egg, mayonnaise and a pinch of minced jalapenos, then bound together and coated with panko crumbs before being pan-fried—result in a respectable rendition. It won’t win any crabcake contests, but contains a decent amount of lump meat.

The sleeper entrée is the Eastern Bay rosemary chicken, a flattened breast marinated in fresh rosemary and pungent balsamic vinegar, and served with fresh sautéed spinach, wild mushroom sauce and addictive, hand-cut Potato Stix-like french fries that are great for sopping up the sauce. (Note: Get those fries with whatever you order.)

The two salads and two gratins I tried were disappointing. Both the baby spinach and grapefruit salad and the iceberg wedge were clunky and overdressed. The tomato-and-crab gratin was pretty but bland; and the heavy potato, fennel and gruyère gratin disproves the saying that you can never be too rich.

Refreshing desserts are a good way to end a seafood meal, and here, those would be: the Raspberry Ollie Jack (named after the owners’ two children, Olivia and Jack), a martini-glass filled with vanilla gelato and topped with Grand Marnier-marinated raspberries and whipped cream; or the picture-perfect Key lime tart. Ice cream is also available from Moorenko’s, the Silver Spring company that makes bold and interesting flavors.

As for atmosphere, the Dugans have created a light, classy-looking space. They painted the walls a relaxing sage, raised the ceiling and hung boating prints from Willard Bond, the late marine artist. They also snagged a fabulous giant metal crab sculpture by Cambridge, Md., artist Paul Lockhart.

One word of caution: When the place is crowded, it’s noisy—probably a consequence of the raised, unfinished ceiling. And while the servers are ultra-pleasant, they could be a bit better informed about the menu’s ingredient sources.

For the most part, though, The Grilled Oyster Company looks to have smooth sailing ahead.

The Grilled Oyster Company

7943 Tuckerman Lane, Cabin John Shopping Center & Mall, Potomac, 301-299-9888, thegrilledoystercompany.com

Hours
Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Prices
Raw oysters, $2.25 to $2.75 each; grilled oysters, $2.75 each; jumbo chilled shrimp, $2 each. Other appetizers, small plates, salads and side dishes, $5 to $18. Sandwiches and entrées, $10 to $29.

Reservations
Recommended, particularly on weekends

Wine & Beer
Familiar selection of bottles from California, Europe and South America, most of which are under $40; 15 wines by the glass; classic cocktail menu and decent selection of beers

Favorite Dishes
Applewood bacon-wrapped trio, Chesapeake chowder, fried oysters, Chesapeake cioppino, Eastern Bay rosemary chicken

Favorite Desserts
Raspberry Ollie Jack, Key lime tart

Good Place to Go For
Ladies’ lunch, family dinner, date night, raw bar snack—just about anything

Parking
Shopping center lot

Carole Sugarman is the magazine’s food editor.

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