How an Oyster Bar From the Northeast Created a Menu That Suits L.A.

”It’s fried chicken, it’s biscuits, it’s shrimp and grits, but it’s done slightly left of center.”

Raw oysters on the half-shell play a major role at the new Rappahannock Oyster Bar in ROW DTLA. Rappahannock, an East Coast oyster company and restaurant group helmed by a family that farms its own acclaimed shellfish in the Chesapeake Bay, flies 1,000 pounds of fresh oysters to Los Angeles twice a week just for this location. But beyond the raw seafood, what’s quietly simmering at this outpost is a recently launched dinner menu with Southern dishes that also serve as love letters to the diverse cuisines of L.A.

Take, for example, the restaurant’s impossibly flaky and buttery kimchi-cheddar biscuits. It took executive chef Nick Erven (formerly of Erven, Saint Martha, and Fundamental L.A.) four months experimenting in his home kitchen to perfect his creative version of Red Lobster’s Cheddar Bay Biscuits.

Then there’s Erven’s take on steak frites, which is presented in the form of a deconstructed taco of sorts. The tender slices of grilled skirt steak sit on a swirl of a mole-esque barbecue sauce and are accompanied by crispy masa fries that are reminiscent of the taste of tortillas.

But taking a cue from the South, Erven highlights smoked ham and bacon made by Tennessee “King of Pork” Allan Benton in a few of his dishes, like the shrimp and grits and the onion gravy that accompanies the fried chicken and biscuits.

A restaurant with Southern food isn’t complete without pickles. Erven has roughly 10 different kinds fermenting right now, among them green beans, kimchi with beet greens, green tomatoes, and pink-peppercorn Romanesco. He likens pickling to yoga, a calming activity that forces him to slow down a bit. It’s something so engrained in Erven that he says when his 2-year-old daughter recently started eating pickles, he cheered with excitement.

Each Rappahannock location—their other restaurants are in D.C., Virginia, and South Carolina—is different, and the owners gave Erven free rein to create his own menu for L.A. “There are a lot of cuisines here in L.A., and I really wanted to make this feel like a very L.A. restaurant and not an offshoot of something else,” Erven says. “We also didn’t want it to become too cheffy. We didn’t want it to be the menu where you’re like, ‘I don’t know what any of this stuff is.’ At the end of the day, it’s fried chicken, it’s biscuits, it’s shrimp and grits, but it’s done slightly left of center.”

Many of the dishes feature slight twists on their original iterations. One of his appetizers, a loaded potato latke, is a fancified take on the Waffle House chain’s smothered hash browns. Erven’s latke is topped with a cheddar crisp, creme fraiche, and a dollop of caviar. “Putting hash browns on the menu felt a little too simple, so I tried to pull influences from L.A.,” Erven says. “There’s a Jewish population here, so I thought, what if we did a latke? But it’s filled with bacon, so it’s heresy and I understand that. I was trying to combine a couple of different things into something that’s unexpected.”
Tattooed and in a Dolly Parton T-shirt, Erven says there isn’t a lot of pretentiousness at Rappahannock and that he isn’t into the “high-brow shit.” The 35-year-old chef grew up eating at chain restaurants in Riverton, Wyoming, a town so small that he says it was a “big deal” when Target and Taco Bell opened there. When he moved to Fresno with his family as a teenager, he started playing guitar and singing in punk bands, eventually making the move down to L.A. to do the same. It was here that he found his passion for cooking.

“I didn’t have any direction [at the time],” Erven says. “I saw an ad for culinary school [at Pasadena’s now-shuttered Le Cordon Bleu] around 2 in the morning. I was probably stoned.”

Erven says culinary school was “just awful” because at that point he had no experience cooking beyond microwaving burritos and food wasn’t very important in his family. It wasn’t until he became a salad cook at a restaurant that everything started to click. Over the years, he’s worked at a number of lauded restaurants, cooking everything from bone-marrow beignets at the since-closed Saint Martha, to fried ramen eggs topped with uni at the Venue in Koreatown. His most recent venture was opening his own vegan-leaning restaurant, Erven, in Santa Monica before closing it and going to work at Rappahannock. Los Angeles Magazine named Erven the best new restaurant of 2016, and Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold said it was the best vegan restaurant in L.A. that he had ever been to.

Erven says he developed his understanding of food in L.A. “There’s Korean food and tacos and my love for chain restaurants,” Erven says. “It’s all those sort of things I pull from because that’s what I know.”

When he worked at Saint Martha, a couple of his cooks, who are Korean, turned him onto rice cakes and budae jjigae, a kimchi and gochujang stew made with SPAM, hot dogs and ramen noodles. He says it was “mind-blowing” and “the best thing I’d ever had.” Erven also fondly gives credit to working with other chefs who introduced him to making mole.

“For me, someone who doesn’t have something that I can hold onto, this is my identity,” Erven says. “I found myself enjoying being a sponge, [asking myself], ‘How can I learn what this is and appreciate it and put it through my own lens?’”

Rappahannock Oyster Bar, ROW DTLA, 777 S. Alameda St., downtown

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