There was a time when oysters Rockefeller were looked down on as the kind of old-fashioned, country club fare that nouvelle, New American and other food trends tried so assiduously to dispatch. Rockefeller was an affront, an insult to a delicacy whose flavor and texture were too naturally subtle to be obscured, and to the diner, who should, according to some chefs, experience so perfect a food in its natural state. To them, roasting an oyster as a Rockefeller was tantamount to mixing a 90-point Chardonnay into a spritzer. Sacrilege.
Thank goodness we got over all that.
With the emergence of comfort food more than a decade ago, oysters Rockefeller began to reappear, as it does at Trolley Square Oyster House in Wilmington. Few places do it better.
On a recent visit, ours arrived as a plate of six large, plump oysters topped with a heap of buttery spinach sprinkled with panko crumbs. The blanket of Parmigiana-rich greens kept the oysters moist. The roasting heightened their flavor. A dash of Pernod gave a sweet, mildly spicy note to the topping. And the panko, ever crispy, provided a welcome contrast of textures. My compliments to chef Silvy Bravo and his team—and a plea to let them remain on the menu in perpetuity.
The name of the restaurant says it all. As part of the group of popular Big Fish restaurants, Trolley Square Oyster House specializes in seafood, with 10 or so types of oysters from across the country taking center stage.
The oyster house concept dates to the mid-19th century, when the appetite for the shellfish was so great, violent conflicts broke out between Chesapeake Bay watermen and intruding poacher-pirates from New England. The Chesapeake then supplied half of all oysters consumed around the world.
Though the popularity of classic oyster houses faded in the middle half of the 20th—along with oyster harvests in some areas—some restaurateurs began to resurrect the idea a few years ago, as more cultured or farmed oysters became available. Many owners revived a Victorian feeling in their oyster houses, but dining among the dark paneling and reproduced period furniture often felt more kitschy than transporting.
The upstairs dining room
Through decor and menu, Trolley Oyster has brought the concept thoroughly up to date. The owners kept the exposed brick walls and the contemporary elements of its recent predecessor in that space (a long-ago converted townhouse), while adding some new touches. In the deep, narrow dining-lounge area downstairs, a marble bar tops a base of white subway tile. Strips of dark and light woods alternate on the floor. Shiny stainless steel chairs and stools contrast with wood tabletops. The cool aqua tones of the exterior repeat inside.
The menu tends toward the classic, offering old-time Eastern Shore favorites such as oyster stew, crab cakes, and fried oysters with chicken salad, and it pays respect to seafood traditions from far and wide via fried Ipswich clams, a hearty New England lobster roll and a Dockside Stew much like the cioppino of San Francisco. Recent trends express themselves through items such as mahi tacos.
Our first visit started at happy hour on a summer Friday. The place was packed with a diverse crowd of partiers at the shaded bar in the courtyard and others watching sports on TV downstairs. Diners conversed at the row of tables nearby or relaxed at tables on the upstairs deck. Crowded and convivial, Trolley Square Oyster House is a perfect addition to the scene in upstate’s premier dining-nightlife neighborhood.
We started by sharing a dozen Sweet Jesus oysters on the half, a variety farmed on the Western Shore of the Chesapeake. Their clean flavor and buttery texture only whetted our appetite for more.
We resisted, eager to sample the entrées. The catch of the day—cod—was offered grilled, broiled or blackened, with lemon butter or a choice of sauces. My dining partner chose blackened. The portion was generous, seared until just cooked (still moist), and the seasoning proved amply spicy without being overwhelming. The sautéed spinach and roasted fingerling potatoes were reliable accompaniments.
Roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon
I am powerless over shellfish in tomato, so I chose the Dockside Stew. The hint of tartness of the saffron-scented broth was more than compensated for by the abundance of clams, calamari and mussels—and by the large slices of buttery, garlicky chargrilled sourdough. The toast is good enough to be sold as a side, and I used it enthusiastically to clean the broth from the bowl.
The more we talked about oysters, the more irresistible they became. We finished with half a dozen Chincoteague Salts and another half of Beausoleils. Sampling them side by side reveals exactly how terroir—the salinity of their native waters, general water quality, temperature, diet and other factors—influences their flavors. The Chincoteagues showed lots of brine up front, the Beausoleils, from New Brunswick, were cleaner, but not without a hint of salt.
With the maturation and growth of the aquaculture industry, oysters from across the country have become prevalent in the market, so the raw bar menu at Trolley Oyster, like most local menus, features common varieties, especially those of the Atlantic coast. You won’t find anything exotic, but you’ll find enough diversity to have fun (not to mention plenty of Gulf shrimp and Chesapeake middleneck clams).
We decided to graze widely on our second visit, made on a Thursday about 7 p.m. The wait for a table was about 30 minutes, so we sat at a cocktail rail near a television at the back of the main room to kill the time, then decided to stay put. Just as well. Convivial can mean loud—which I don’t object to—but my imperfect ears missed the full-volume tone of the texted page. On the upside, we were greeted immediately by a server, who then delivered our drinks in a flash.
From left to right: The Maine lobster roll; Sweet Jesus oysters from the Chesapeake
We started with the oysters Rockefeller, followed by a roasted beet salad of spinach with roasted pistachios and tangy goat cheese—it arrived split without having to ask our server—as well as nicely caramelized roasted Brussels sprouts and bacon bits, which get a fun little kick from an aïoli of long hot peppers.
We skipped the big steam pots of mussels, which are offered in five preparations, from coconut-curry to tasso-mustard cream.
The fried oysters were very good. The batter cooked to a crisp while protecting the moisture of the shellfish within. Most notable was the tartar sauce, which is lighter, creamier and more subtly flavored than the sweet pickle relish-mayonnaise glop most places serve.
We were most impressed by the lobster roll. Trolley Oyster elevates a standard of Maine diners to a dish worthy of the best restaurants, tossing large chunks of chilled meat with a mayonnaise seasoned with a mild brown butter. The light dressing lets the flavor of the lobster shine. And forget the hotdog bun you’d get at a roadside lobster shack. Trolley Oyster serves its lobster roll on a warm split-top bun.
If you don’t enjoy fish, it’s only fair to warn you that non-seafood options are limited to a cheese sampler, a burger and a fried chicken club sandwich, so you’ll have to be good sports for the others in your party. But don’t pass on an invitation. There are enough novelty cocktails and craft beers to keep you exploring for a while. Trolley Square Oyster House being in Trolley Square, drinks are part of the experience.