The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the country, stretching all the way through Maryland and Virginia, and producing about 45,000 tons of seafood-crabs, finfish, scallops, clams, and oysters-every year. In recent decades, the bay has become polluted, and efforts to reverse the deadening effect of run-off from cities and farms have had mixed results. But some of the most effective clean-up efforts are actually accomplished by oysters, which can each filter up to 60 gallons of water a day. Happily, oysters are also delicious, and Butcher Bay, a new mid-Atlantic-style seafood pub, is supporting the region’s oyster farmers by selling four different varieties of the bivalve grown in the Chesapeake.
In its focused devotion to its genre, Butcher Bay reminds me a little of Brooklyn’s ode to bourbon and pork, Char No. 4. Replace bourbon and pork with cheap beer and (slightly fancified) seafood shack fare, and you get the idea. It’s not going to change your life, but it’s an awfully good spot to kill a craving for fish and chips or oyster chowder. Plus, the spot’s Southern tinge-as in shrimp hush puppies-is a nice change from classic New England-style seafood, which gets all the love.
Jason Hennings and Bob Giraldi, the former owners of the now-defunct gastropub E.U., have joined up with Adam Cohn, lately of Seymour Burton, to open Butcher Bay in the former Seymour Burton space. Hennings says the name is meant to evoke a surf-and-turf restaurant and also remind you that, historically, the East Village was butcher shop central. The room is serviceable-lots of wood, with artfully mismatched chairs and a marble raw bar; the service is generally competent, friendly and free from the upselling that’s so common these days. As a whole, the restaurant feels refreshingly unpretentious, if a bit unmemorable in design.
But if you are a lobster-lover, you will remember the lobster pot pie, to my mind the best dish on the current menu. It deviates from mid-Atlantic-sourced seafood by featuring Maine lobster, in a thick, pinkish stew similar to bisque, topped with rounds of puff pastry. The stew bobs with such a generous helping of lobster that any spoonful is likely to dig up a healthy chunk of the crustacean, along with peas, carrots, and onions. It’s also the most expensive main dish, at $24. The prices are fair, starting at $12 for the mains, and ranging from $5 to $6 for the appetizers.
The oysters on ice from the raw bar are $2 each-that’s not an unusual price, but it makes having more than two oysters to start a meal out of the question for most of us. Still, they are very nice oysters, especially the ultra-briny Olde Salt variety from the Chincoteague Bay, which is apparently a very salty body of water. There are also raw clams, also of the Olde Salt variety, small, firm, and saline. At $1.50 each, they’re a good alternative to the oysters.
Most of the good choices at Butcher Bay involve seafood as well as copious amounts of cream or bacon (or both), and the use of a deep fryer. The scallop pan roast more closely resembles an over-reduced chowder than a classic pan roast. Nevertheless, the shallow pool of cream scattered with corn kernels, bacon, potatoes, and rotund, perfectly seasoned scallops is very enjoyable.
The oyster chowder is more restrained, featuring a milky, briny broth, full of the mineral richness of oyster liquor, and three fat, feathery-edged oysters. The soup is augmented with diced potatoes and bacon and comes with oyster crackers the size of silver dollars. Another good opportunity for oyster-gorging comes in the form of the fried oyster and bacon po’-boy. The oysters are encased in a delicate cornmeal batter; they sprawl fatly across the sandwich and are topped with rashers of crunchy bacon. The sandwich is dressed with mayo, lettuce, pickles, and red onions, along with some very sad, wan slices of winter tomatoes-better to pick them out. The bread seems more like compressed panini bread than the traditional crusty, airy French bread. Still, it’s nice to be able to get your mouth around a sandwich for a change.
Fish and chips comes with fine, medium-girthed fries and three large pieces of haddock, sealed inside a craggy, golden batter, which has that pleasantly dry crunch that makes you forget that this food was submerged in oil just seconds ago. Maryland fried chicken, however, makes its oily origins known, with a greasy breading. Also emerging from the bubbling oil are the fried clam strips-to me, it’s not a fried clam without the gushy belly. But Hennings noted that the fresh belly clams are very expensive right now because they’re out of season-they didn’t want to charge double digits for a plate of a few measly clams, and so they went with the strips for the time being.
Aside from the fried chicken, the turf side of things is held up by a grilled steak with a baked potato and a very refreshing green goddess salad made with a mix of bitter greens like radicchio, frisee, and arugula. On the side, you can get a buttery creamed spinach, seasoned with slices of garlic and chile flakes.
If you don’t want to trek to Clemente’s in Sheepshead Bay for all-you-can-eat blue crabs this summer, you’ll be able to gorge on as many as you can crack open at Butcher Bay’s crab parties. Granted, your crabs and beer will not be as cheap as Sheepshead Bay prices, but are reasonable for the East Village-PBR is $4, Yuengling and Harpoon IPA $5.
Seafood shack food is never as wonderful as it is on a beach, with seagulls vying for your french fries and the smell of grease and salt in the air. But city folks need fried fish, too, and Butcher Bay delivers it.