At a time when sustainable seafood is trendy, True Chesapeake Oyster Co. aims to go further. Here, you won’t find jumbo lump crab cakes, a must at most area seafood restaurants. Invasive species like blue catfish and snakehead are staples, as are, of course, oysters, those water filtration machines.

If all of that sounds like a drag, obligatory and austere, don’t worry. The setting, in a restored 19th century flour mill along the Jones Falls, is sumptuous and relaxing. Dishes that emerge from the kitchen of executive chef Zack Mills are bold, flavorful and fun.


The menu reflects a joyful appetite for Chesapeake regional cuisine, tempered by a chef’s hunger for innovation. Mills first learned to cook in his mom’s kitchen; today, the Annapolis native counts Michelin-starred-chef Michael Mina as one of his chief influences. He most recently worked at Mina’s Wit & Wisdom Tavern in the Four Seasons.

The approach to crabs verges on radical. Instead of the familiar Maryland crab soup, Mills recently offered a crab miso, the umami broth drawing out the flavors of the delicate meat. Instead of the familiar jumbo lump crab cake, Mills’ version sees a mix of backfin and lump meat served atop creamed leeks and baby fennel. When Maryland crab is no longer available for the season, Mills will take crab off the menu rather than import it.

But crabs aren’t the star of the show here, oysters are. Fortunately, the old wisdom that you should only eat oysters in months containing the letter "R" doesn’t apply to farm-raised oysters, which don’t reproduce, says Mills.

Just as wines have a terroir, or flavor of their origins, so do oysters, Mills says. The ones from the restaurant’s eponymous farm in Southern Maryland’s St. Jerome Creek are briny and ever so slightly sweet. Perhaps you have tried them already at the company’s The Local Oyster stall in Mount Vernon Marketplace or in Ballston, Virginia; they’re consistently some of the freshest around. Cooked, they shine in dishes like oyster stew, a creamy bisque-like soup with smoky oysters, bacon and salsify root.

Just stopping by? Sit at the custom-made bar, embedded with oyster shells, and sip the Saint Jerome, a vodka martini with olive oil and a splash of salt water. Esquire magazine recently named general manager Chelsea Gregoire, who designed the restaurant’s bar program, beverage director of the year.

Invasive species are made approachable and delicious in dishes like the blue catfish fish stick topped with fried capers. It’s the first item Mills cooked up when he first started at the restaurant, and one he’s especially proud of. A tender snakehead filet on top of black lentils and cauliflower, plated with an artistic shmear of peppery Romesco sauce, is tasty enough to make any diner forget she is eating a fish with a name like a horror movie title.

The chef’s passion for local produce shows up in dishes like roasted butternut squash, which our server correctly described as one of the best dishes on the menu. The portion was small; hungry guests should order an accompanying dish. There are plenty of heartier options available: We loved the creamy crab dip macaroni and cheese, comfort food at its finest. There’s also the handmade spaghetti with bacon and clams, a wonderful take on carbonara. Sometimes you just need a nice bowl of pasta.

Missteps are few and far between, and staff seem eager to improve where necessary. A salad dressing was face-puckeringly tart. For dessert, an ice cream sundae with fried cookie dough was more than one person could comfortably finish. But these are luxury problems.

Expect to see big things from True Chesapeake Oyster Co. Owners have plans to start another new restaurant in Remington. Mills declined to give an opening date for that eatery, which was originally scheduled to arrive in 2018, saying he wants to have the Hampden spot running smoothly first. With that kind of thoughtful leadership, and a commitment to local seafood that’s actually good for the environment, this restaurant along the Jones Falls looks to be well on its way to becoming one of the city’s top dining destinations.

True Chesapeake Oyster Co.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Where: Whitehall Mill, 3300 Clipper Mill Road

Contact: 410-913-6374, truechesapeake.com

Open: Serves dinner Tuesday through Sunday.

Prices: Appetizers $9-$17; entrees $17-$79


Food: Elevated Chesapeake cuisine

Noise/TVs: Televisions in bar area turned on during game days and major events.

Service: Knowledgeable and generally attentive.

Parking: Lot available.

Special diets: Can be accommodated.

Reservation policy: Accepts reservations.

Handicap accessible: Yes

[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star.]