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In a pop-up, Dylan's Oyster Cellar deserves permanence

Pop-up shops — businesses that open temporarily to present new concepts before hopefully graduating to a permanent location — make sense, especially in Baltimore. We can be a capricious group to impress, so a business that chooses to refine its execution on a small scale, rather than commit to a formidable lease too soon, is acting wisely.

Opened by Phil Han of Dooby's last summer, the Hatch is a business incubator located in the lower-level space of the Park Plaza in Mount Vernon. (Think of it as a permanent pop-up shop without permanent tenants.) In mid-March, Dylan's Oyster Cellar, a charming raw bar by Baltimorean Dylan Salmon, moved in, and has made the most of the quaint, short-term space since.

Salmon, who was once a Woodberry Kitchen line cook and shucked for Ryleigh's Oyster, said on a recent Friday afternoon that he had always wanted to open a small raw bar that concentrated on fresh products and warm engagement between an informed staff and curious patrons. While the Hatch is small (I counted 25 possible seats at maximum), Salmon said it was the ideal size for what he envisioned.

My Friday happy hour at Dylan's Oyster Cellar was one of the most enjoyable bar experiences I've had this year. It was a serene spring afternoon, and the wide-open entrance to Dylan's allowed sunlight and the usual neighborhood noises to co-exist with Louis Armstrong's “Mack the Knife,” which played soothingly over the bar's speakers. Next to me, two guys marveled over marinated anchovies on a sliced baguette, while a bespectacled man worked alone on a laptop at a nearby table. As the bartender filled my water glass, Salmon quietly popped oysters open next to him.

There are plenty of reasons to recommend Dylan's: Fresh, meaty oysters from multiple regions, a discerning collection of small-batch spirits and an ideal environment all come to mind. But this is an experience not to miss (and you only have until Aug. 31, when the lease at the Hatch ends) because the staff will guide you with expertise and grace. Throughout the visit, the staff was generous with insight and opinions, while never once sounding instructional. Good bartenders enlighten patrons, but the excellent ones can do so without seeming like know-it-alls. Dylan's thrives because it understands this balancing act well.

Given such an intimate setting, I decided early on to allow the bartender, Adam, to shape my visit. After reading the menu of house cocktails (there were six), I asked what he would pair with oysters.

After a recent shift, Adam had found himself in a similar predicament — oysters in front of him, but in need of a drink. He ordered a martini, but allowed the bartender to choose the particulars. The result was a Top Hat ($9), a cocktail of Washington's Green Hat Gin (recently named one of the best American-made gins by GQ), Ransom vermouth and a splash of olive juice to dirty it. Before serving, Adam confirmed the mixture was correct by tasting it with a stirrer, a double-checking process that all bartenders should do, but too many neglect. The citrus flavor of the gin enhanced the brininess of the oysters (I had $2 Skinny Dippers from Maryland and $2.50 Wellfleets from Massachusetts) in a brightening way similar to squeezing lemon on shellfish.

Dylan's does not have beer on tap, but the nine cans to choose from were local (Union Craft's Blackwing Lager and Duckpin Pale Ale, both $6), familiar (National Bohemian, $3) or intriguing (Salmon said he enjoyed Finch's Golden Wing blonde ale, $7, with oysters). I skipped beer, and ordered a Molly's Punch ($7), which was a simple concoction of Malbec (poured from a large dispenser on the bar) red wine and Stonewall rum, garnished with an orange peel. The smooth drink soothed, and heavily benefited from the aromatic qualities of the citrus.

Before I left, I chatted with Salmon about life after the lease ends. His confidence spoke not only to everything he had learned from previous stints at well-known establishments, but also the belief in his uncomplicated vision. The conversation left me hopeful not only for his future raw bar (Salmon said he did not have a space or neighborhood in place yet, but he did not seem worried either), but the Hatch as well. The beauty is two-fold: Through the pop-up shop, Salmon has shown why his raw bar should be embraced in any part of the city, and in turn, the Hatch proved it can be a rich breeding ground for business concepts in need of a trial run (whether to work out kinks or lure potential investors). The city would be better off with either, and we are downright lucky to have both.

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