Unrated during the pandemic

Rob Rubba was understandably worried when he ditched meat at the close of 2017. “It’s very hard in this career,” says the chef who once delighted diners with “sticky-crunchy” peanut-strewn ribs at Hazel in Washington and joked about getting stuck making salads going forward. All he knew was that his next restaurant would give vegetables the star treatment.

The next year, he partnered with Estadio owner Max Kuller to start work on Oyster Oyster in Shaw. Introduced in 2020, the restaurant plays up two sustainable, eco-friendly food sources — oyster mushrooms and oysters born in water — and began accepting diners inside in June after doing takeout for almost a year.

Stop reading and start booking. (Then please come back to this review.) Washington has welcomed a host of impressive places to eat around the pandemic — Albi in Navy Yard, Imperfecto in the West End — but none that have excited me more than Oyster Oyster, a fun name for a serious, and seriously delicious, restaurant. The enterprise brings together notions a lot of diners want — food with a point of view, gracious service, distinctive ambiance — while quietly sending the message that you don’t have to eat meat to eat well, and that treating the planet with respect involves baby steps.

In the kitchen, that translates to repurposing scraps for cocktails and using lids instead of plastic wrap to store food. In the dining room, that means the votives are oyster shells filled with wax. Rubba wins us over with the first bite of his $75 tasting menu: spiky orbs of julienne fried celery root with cores of smoked tofu jump-started with soy sauce and black garlic vinegar. He is pleased if the crisp snack reminds you of, say, potato chips or fried onions from a can. “They bring joy to one’s life,” says the chef, who serves the treat “to put people at ease” with his concept.

Too bad watermelons can’t stick around longer. The most mouthwatering treatment of the fruit in Washington this year was at Oyster Oyster, where a circle of juicy watermelon hosted a salad of chile-lit peanuts, minty shiso and sour, grape-size cucamelons. Nestled within the jumble was a small Orchard Point oyster sharpened with ginger vinaigrette and verjus, the pressed juice of unripened grapes. (Because they don’t have central nervous systems — and therefore don’t feel pain — oysters are fair game for some vegetarians and vegans.)

Rubba deploys butter here and there — the opening fritters achieve their texture from clarified butter mixed with sunflower oil— but not cream, milk or eggs. The chef still manages to slip richness into his food. A ringer for ricotta on a plate of tomatoes is “terra cotta,” pumpkin seeds pureed with nutritional yeast and koji, cooked fermented rice. And a small round of crusty squash blossom bread shows up with a spread coaxed from sunflower seeds, garlic vinegar and marigold flowers, which give the condiment its yellow hue.

The 28-seat dining room is a charming curiosity. Throw in some pancakes and you could see it as a diner. Rubba says he wanted something “lively and bright and joyful,” a wish fulfilled by pink and pale green accents and strategically placed succulents. The space is small enough that you can hear what’s going on in the open kitchen, whose white tiles and overall tidiness would impress Marie Kondo. And the music is played so you can appreciate it even as you trade pandemic stories with friends you haven’t seen in forever.

The heartiest course is a casserole of more than a dozen kinds of mushrooms that a server stirs and passes under the nose of everyone at the table. We inhale what smells like a forest floor as some of the many roasted mushrooms, including subtly nutty pecan truffles from Virginia, are introduced. Before each of us is a small plate of baby potatoes, cooked in vegetable broth and anointed with corn fungus butter, over which an attendant portions the mushrooms. We later learn the dish is called “earth.” The beiges and browns aren’t much to look at, but it’s a mistake to judge this book by its cover. “Earth” is moving.

And, like all the food here, it’s better in the company of something beverage director Sarah Horvitz is pouring. One pairing in particular, the 2019 La Stoppa Trebbiolo, had my tablemates draining their glasses. A blend of barbera and bonarda, the wine offered high acidity and vibrant red fruit flavor — just the ticket for the roasted mushrooms.

Eight courses sound like a lot, but they’re presented so that something light (or lighthearted) might follow something weighty. Those rib-sticking mushrooms and potatoes were replaced by a few inches of corn on the cob, brushed with a glaze of fermented blueberries and dried chiles, at once fruity and hot, pleasure chased by pain. (Leave it to Rubba to find compostable bamboo corn holders.) The last of the savory courses brought an eggplant schnitzel topped with a fennel and cabbage kraut laced with thyme, an entree enhanced with a dab of eggplant puree garnished with a spoonful of red onion jam. Oktoberfest should be so lucky.

Sliced roasted figs drizzled with a piney syrup and paired with a (vegan) pecan mousse are an inspired and elegant finish. Shards of maple tuile carpet the surface and crackle like cornflakes.

Note to skeptics: You do not leave hungry. You are likely to learn something. I know I did. While Rubba did a nice job with takeout before he started taking reservations for in-house dining, his creations show infinitely better on plates at Oyster Oyster and accompanied by servers as joyful as the setting. Another lesson: Even dedicated meat eaters leave praising the food — full stop, no it’s-good-for-vegetarian qualifiers.

Oyster Oyster is not the first restaurant in the area to offer this style of food. Elizabeth’s Gone Raw, staged in a stately townhouse, initially didn’t cook anything higher than 118 degrees, and Fancy Radish, an import from Philadelphia, introduced Washington to whimsies including a charcuterie board embracing carrots spiced like pastrami, smoked tofu in the role of a pâté. But Oyster Oyster feels more accessible than the former and more comfortable than the latter.

You don’t see a menu until after you’ve eaten. “A lot of guests have opinions about vegetables,” based on canned mushrooms they’ve had on pizza or overcooked asparagus at home, says Rubba. The game changer prefers to surprise — as in delight — customers and “maybe change your mind.”

I’ve had restaurants withhold menus till the end of a meal before. But I’ve never been sent off with a list printed on recycled paper embedded with flower seeds, or been told that a menu will sprout marigolds if I toss it in a planter at home — true, according to Rubba, who tested it.

Baby steps add up to big steps. Oyster Oyster is a win-win for guests and globe alike.

More from Food:

Oyster Oyster 1440 Eighth St. NW. No phone. oysteroysterdc.com.Open for indoor dining 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Prices: $75 tasting menu (optional $55-per-person wine pairing). Accessibility: Because of a step at the entrance, wheelchair users should enter via a door to the left of the storefront; ADA-compliant restroom.