The French word “terroir” refers to the unique flavors and qualities that a growing region imparts on the products raised there. It’s a phrase most often used by vintners, chocolatiers and coffee geeks to describe the area-specific notes that separate similar products sourced from different locales, but now oysters farmers are co-opting the phrase and making it their own.
The guys from Rappahannock River Oysters have twisted the term to create “merroir,” which refers to the flavors imparted by the different areas of the sea. “Every oyster is influenced by its marine surroundings,” says co-owner Travis Croxton. “And you can taste those differences.”
To help diners appreciate those varying flavors firsthand, Croxton and his business partner — cousin Ryan Croxton — opened Merroir in July. The cozy and casual restaurant, which Croxton calls an “artisanal and educational tasting room,” overlooks the Chesapeake Bay in Topping, Va. Executive chef Peter Woods – a veteran of Richmond’s River City Diner and Graffiti Grill — mans the tent-covered outdoor grill where all the cooking is done.
A dozen diners can sit inside, while another two dozen can sit outside at the covered picnic tables surrounded by heaters to ward off the cold during the harsher seasons. As they take in the sights, sounds and smells of the ocean, diners can sample the company’s three signature bivalves — Rappahannock River Oysters, Stingray Oysters and Olde Salt Oysters — paired with craft brews or wines, including a number of Virginian vinos. (Oysters are $1.50 each, $8 for a half dozen and $15 for a dozen).
All of the company’s oysters are grown in the Chesapeake Bay, but in different areas that have varying levels of salinity, which affects their taste. The Rappahannock River Oysters are raised in the tail end of the river of the same name, where the freshwater meets the saltwater of the bay. “They have a less salty quality and more of a mineral-y taste to them,” says Woods, who recommends eating them with a French Picpoul de Pinet by Cave de Pomerols or a 60 Minute IPA by Dogfish Head.
Meanwhile, the Stingrays are raised in Mobjack Bay. “They tip a little saltier than fresher,” says Croxton. “They have a unique metallic aftertaste that makes it taste more like a West Coast oyster.” To complement them, Croxton suggests a Portuguese vinho verde or a Doggie Style Classic Pale Ale from Flying Dog.
On the other end of the sea’s spectrum, the Olde Salt Oyster is raised in the Chincoteague. “They are a good old fashioned, kick-you-in-the-pants salty oyster,” says Woods. He advises pairing it with a 2009 Austrian Gruner Veltliner by Wimmer or an Allagash White beer.
There are four sauces to choose from: a traditional cocktail sauce, a classic red wine mignonette, a tomatillo cocktail sauce and a roasted corn vinaigrette that Woods dubbed “Carrie Sauce.”
Merroir’s limited menu also includes steamed clams and crab cakes, but not much else. “The idea is to keep it really simple,” says Woods. “We don’t want to overcomplicate it. We just want everyone to truly taste everything that’s going on with these oysters.”
Merroir, 784 Locklies Creek Road, Topping, Va; 804-758-2871. Hours: Wednesday through Sunday, noon to 9 p.m.