Dylan Salmon bluffed his way into his first oyster job. The man whose name hangs over the little subterranean restaurant called Dylan’s Oyster Cellar in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood always wanted to be a chef, but he didn’t know how to get his foot in the door at a big-name restaurant.
“I figured if I said I could shuck an oyster, I would increase my chances,” he says.
The problem was, Salmon didn’t know the first thing about oysters. And didn’t even like them that much. “Honestly, I was always more into clams,” he says. A typical Baltimore kid, he grew up pulling them out of the sands of Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
But a manager at Ryleigh’s Oyster had mercy on him and set him to work. “I got my butt kicked at first,” Salmon says, “but I stayed three years.” He got an education in the art of designing a daily raw bar and fell in love with oysters, learning the subtle differences between meaty, mild Maryland Choptank Sweets and supersalty Wellfleets from Cape Cod Bay.
After years of working in kitchens around Baltimore and hosting a series of pop-up oyster bars, he and his wife, Irene, opened Dylan’s Oyster Cellar in 2016. The emphasis is on nostalgic Eastern Shore traditions, like baked beans and coddies—potato cakes flavored with salt cod—and, of course, a wide range of clam and oyster dishes. In the fall, just when the weather starts to turn cold, Salmon adds oyster stew to the menu. It’s a dish he made thousands of times when he was a chef at Woodberry Kitchen, a much-loved Baltimore restaurant with a deeply local sensibility.
“I went through hundreds of ideations,” he says. Sometimes he would thicken the stew with grits or benne seeds and season it with celery salt. To add some texture, he might toss in sautéed slices of the carrot-shaped root vegetable salsify, which tastes a little like artichoke and which some people
call oyster plant. He’s even looked to the famous Grand Central Oyster Bar pan roast, with its hit of chili sauce and raft of toast, for inspiration. But in the end, he always comes back to the simple blend of cream, celery, and oysters that makes up a classic oyster stew. “I like the tried-and-true,” he says.
Chopping the celery and shallots fine and using good-quality butter is key. Once the vegetables are softened, milk and cream are added along with just enough Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce to give the stew a touch of character. The base can be made earlier in the day and kept in the refrigerator until it’s time to serve guests. A cook simply needs to bring it back to a simmer, warm some bowls, and then gently poach the oysters for a couple of minutes.
“It’s just a ridiculously simple thing that rises and falls on timing and temperature,” Salmon says. “That’s the beauty of it. It’s so pure.”