Between the Chesapeake Bay’s newly prolific oyster farms and an uptick in restaurants shining a spotlight on the beautiful bivalve, there’s never been a better time to be an oyster lover in Baltimore.
One of this fall’s most recent additions to the region’s oyster-centric dining scene is The Curious Oyster, which opened in mid-October at The Avenue at White Marsh. During a recent visit, the restaurant presented itself as ripe with potential, but in need of polishing.
During conversations about why Baltimore City restaurants close, one theory often bandied about is that suburban restaurants are improving, so people who live outside the city can eat well without heading downtown. I believe that’s true, and White Oak Hospitality Group, the Baltimore-based restaurant group that owns The Curious Oyster, is responsible for part of the influx of good spots in the ‘burbs.
Plus, White Oak’s executive chef Josh White is good at what he does. White is the former owner of Smoke, the now-shuttered Cockeysville barbecue joint that regularly sold out; he’s earned his solid reputation.
Based on that knowledge, my expectations of The Curious Oyster were high before we arrived. As we walked through the door, we found the restaurant bustling and full of energy, typically a good sign.
Unfortunately, those high expectations weren’t quite met. The restaurant is packed with potential. It’s an attractive space, all white-washed wood and clean lines, staffed with nice people, and the seafood-heavy menu is full of good ideas. But it would benefit from fine-tuning, both in terms of food execution and operations.
Our meal started on a mostly positive note, with a creative and well-made cocktail and several briny oysters.
The drink, called an Old Cuban, mixed spiced rum with mint, lime juice, simple syrup, bitters and champagne, a combination that could’ve been cloyingly sweet but instead was well-proportioned and refreshing.
During our visit, raw bar selections included eight types of oysters–all East Coast varieties–plus clams, crab claws and lump crab. We ordered a half-dozen oysters on the half shell and were impressed with the Glidden Points from Maine and with a house specialty from Virginia called, appropriately, the Curious Oyster. The oysters came with tart mignonette sauce and a small dish of ketchup and horseradish, unmixed, which we appreciate, since we like to figure out our own ratio.
So far, so good.
[EDIT: An earlier version of this review mentioned that our fourth oyster was erroneously replaced by clams. However, the fourth oyster, Savage Blondes from Prince Edward Islands, were delivered and the clams were a last-minute addition to the list. The mistake here was all mine, not the restaurant’s. The clams, as previously mentioned, were good ones.]
A second appetizer, dubbed Rings on Rings, was also a mixed bag. We loved the idea of the dish: a mishmash of circular foods–calamari, onion rings, banana peppers and jalapenos–battered, fried and served with lemon-garlic aioli.
Unfortunately, the concept was better than the reality. Our basket seemed light on calamari and, overall, the fried batter didn’t have the integrity it needed. The banana peppers fared best–most of those were evenly coated–but other items, especially the onion rings, fell apart, even when we used two hands to try to keep the coating attached to the insides.
The menu includes five different crab and/or lobster roll options. We tried the High Tide, a roll of crab and lobster tossed with brown butter. The plate had promise: The warm roll was a good one, the seafood was plentiful and we loved the crispy, salty fries.
However, while the lobster was likable, we weren’t impressed with the crab. The lumps of meat were large but not as flavorful as we hoped they would be and the texture was mushier than firm.
An entrée of scallops with prosciutto-studded risotto, shaved Brussels sprouts and brown butter was another dish that didn’t live up to its potential. Conceptually, it was spot on; the flavors make sense together and the shaved Brussels were a fun and unexpected element.
However, the risotto was gummy and the scallops were slightly undercooked. I’d rather eat a slightly undercooked scallop than an overcooked one, but these were disappointing. They lacked the crispy outer sear that comes from hitting a hot pan.
The meal ended on a sweeter note, though, with a complimentary bowl of caramel popcorn, a boardwalk treat that fit right in with the seaside vibe of the space.
Decked out in blue and white gingham shirts, the servers conveyed that look, too, and ours had a friendly, cheery disposition. She was knowledgeable about the menu and able to answer questions and offer recommendations. (The people seated next to us quizzed her on many things and she handled it well.)
However, the service side of the meal wasn’t an unequivocal win. The timing was off, with items coming in fits and starts. Our cocktail and oysters took longer than expected, then the basket of fried rings arrived a little too quickly, when we were still enjoying the oysters.
Plus, when we ordered our meal, we requested an order of lobster mac and cheese to take home and asked for it to arrive at the end of dinner. Instead, it came out before our entrees. The timing glitch was not a big deal overall but the man who delivered it seemed to think we’d already finished, which led to a little confusion about whether our entrees had been rung in (they had).
Carryout dishes aren’t typically the best way to judge a menu, so we wouldn’t have held it against the restaurant if the lobster mac and cheese was a clunker. But as it turned out, it was our favorite dish of the night.
If the kitchen can turn out something as lovable as that lobster mac was–even an hour or two after it was originally prepared–it has what it takes to do justice to the rest of the menu, as well. It’ll take some tweaking, but I have faith.
The Curious Oyster. 8161 Honeygo Blvd., Nottingham, (443) 725-5695, thecuriousoyster.com
Final Grade: B-
Bottom Line: The Curious Oyster’s menu is full of good ideas, but to live up to its potential, both the food and service need tweaking
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