Young and Hungry

Harping on the Hayden’s Reef: A Homegrown Oyster at Hank’s Oyster Bar

"Homegrown" is a term often tossed around in various genres of food. You just rarely hear it at the raw bar. That could soon change.

The newly expanded Hank's Oyster Bar in Dupont Circle, City Paper readers' pick for "D.C.'s Best Seafood 2011," is now growing its own oyster.  The "Hayden's Reef," served for the first time at the restaurant last week, is a collaboration between Hank's chef-owner Jamie Leeds and Virginia oyster farmer Bruce Woods. The mollusk is raised in the Nomini Creek area of Westmoreland County in an estuary boasting one of the lowest salinity levels within the Chesapeake Bay, which is said to give the oyster its "unique sweet flavor," according to publicity materials.

On Monday, Young & Hungry stopped by the new and improved Hank's to sample the brand-spankin' new mollusk, which stood out for its large shell and beige tint. I found it to be much meatier and a bit less briny than the other available Virginia variety, Old Plantation, but less creamy than the buttery Naked Roy from Washington State.

My dining companion, admittedly not much of an oyster connoisseur, put it more bluntly: "It's like licking the bottom of a barge—but in a good way."

His positive spin makes some sense, at least to the chef: "I think that it's a good starter oyster, as far as the flavoring, because it's a mild oyster," says Leeds. "It's got a meatiness to it. Some oysters are very creamy and those are more for the oyster veteran. All in all, it's a good well-rounded oyster."

Since its debut last week, the new oyster has been the restaurant's best-seller. "We blew through 1,000 of them in three days," Leeds says. Not only served on the half-shell, the Hayden's Reef is also used in the chef's Hog Island-style barbecued oyster.

The mollusk is named after Leeds' 8-year-old son, who isn't quite the shellfish aficionado that his mother is. At least not yet.  "He sipped the juice a little bit," says Leeds. "But he's not ready to take in the whole thing."

Hank's may be the only place in D.C. currently growing its own oyster. "I haven't heard about it anywhere else," Leeds says.

The process began about a year ago. "We collected bushels and bushels of old shells," Leeds explains, "and we took the staff out there to [Woods'] farm and we poured them in the water and built the reef with those shells. He used the reef to grow those oysters...We have about 750,000 oysters now." That sort of supply could last the restaurant anywhere from six months to a full year, she says. (For some perspective, Hank's generally goes through about 10,000 per week. That's including all six varieties on the blackboard.)

Fresh shipments are scheduled for twice a week, though the recent hurricane knocked out power to Woods' farm, meaning that Hank's will have to do without for the next several days, Leeds notes.

The chef recommends that patrons pair the new oyster with either the Old Rasputin imperial stout on tap, or the house specialty "Hanky Panky" cocktail, made with lemon-infused vodka, a little limoncello, a little cava and a little dab of simple syrup. "It's nice and bright and citrus-y and goes nice with oysters," she says.

Photo by Chris Shott

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