Dogfish Head's Chesapeake & Maine Restaurant is an 'Off-Centered' Hit
Leave it to Dogfish Head to try and infuse an oyster with hops. Yet even Sam Calagione, the founder and president of the legendary craft-brew company, which reached legal drinking age this year, knew when to admit defeat.
“The oysters shut. They didn’t like the super-hoppy water,” says Calagione, who was recently named a finalist for the James Beard: Outstanding Wine, Beer, or Spirits Professional—the sixth straight year he’s been considered for the award.
Despite the misstep, there was simply no way Calagione’s latest restaurant, Chesapeake & Maine in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, was going to serve a standard raw oyster. It’s not in the “off-centered” group’s DNA. Instead of a hoppy tea, the team developed an Alderwood and Hickory smoked salt and threw it into the bath.
“Euphoria,” Calagione recalls of the result. “Because we had been trying to get these oysters to drink hoppy tea for a year with very little success. Then we tried the smoked oyster and it was like a moment of kismet; the sea meeting the flavors of the forest with the smoke, which just went beautifully together. I don’t think there’s anything else like it. It’s our best-selling oyster so far.”
Dogfish Head’s Smoke in the Water dish, and its aforementioned popularity, has Calagione’s restaurant tracking 20 percent ahead of sales projections in its opening two weeks. He also adds that the check average has been around $45, about $10 more than expected, and $20 above their iconic Rehoboth Beach brewpub, which opened in 1995.
This restaurant pays homage to the two coastal regions where Calagione and his wife grew up. Calagione had close friends in Maine who would catch lobster, mussels, and whatever seasonal seafood was freshest. When he began to brainstorm Chesapeake & Maine, he called local fishermen, met with oystermen in the Chesapeake region, and settled on a mission. “Our goal is to serve 100 percent seafood coming from either the Maine region or the Chesapeake region. It’s all about fresh seafood and it’s a fairly innovative concept,” he says. “A statistic I heard … recently is that 91 percent of the seafood sold in American restaurants actually did not come from America’s fishermen. It came from overseas. So, as a freshness component, as a sustainability or carbon footprint component, we’re committed to seafood from these two regions.”
From the brewery that made the country’s first imperial IPA, the trailblazing 90 Minute, and crafts such culinary-forward concepts as the Midas Touch—a beer made with honey, barley malt, white muscat grapes, and saffron, Chesapeake & Maine’s menu is idiosyncratic, peculiar, and undeniably fitting. With culinary leader Kevin Downing at the helm, expect dishes like Noble Rot Beernaise, Dogfish’s take on a classic béarnaise, and Namaste Steam Ebenecooke Mussels. (Noble Rot is a saison-esque beer made from fermented sugars from two unique wine grapes, while Namaste is a witbier composed of lemongrass and a bit of coriander). Another beer-centric dish is the Midas Touch Mignonette. Some other twists include: Lobster Poutine served with fries and cheese curds; Cornmeal Crusted Bluenose Catfish with sweet creamed corn succotash, crispy hushpuppies, and ancho chili remoulade; and Seacuterie, which is comprised of crab cake scotch eggs, lobster sausage, smoked bluefish rillettes, scallop chip, and pickled seabeans.
“We are intentionally keeping the preparations inventive and creative but really letting the seafood shine through,” Calagione says. “Then we’re being really intentional with the recommended beverage pairings.”
Among those beverage programs is what Calagione labels a world-class cocktail program. Although not widely distributed just yet, Dogfish Head has a new line of scratch-made spirits from its Dogfish Head Distilling Co. division that really started kicking up in mid-November, although the brewpub has long distilled spirits at the local level.
Calagione says Chesapeake & Maine will allow guests to enjoy the spirits program curated by well-respected bartender Mia Mastroianni. Some examples: Tarragon Lemonade made with the brand’s Analog Vodka, Bees Knees developed with its Whole Leaf Gin, and the Dogfish Negroni with Compelling Gin.
Additionally, the restaurant will be the first place to sample Dogfish’s SeaQuenchAle, which Calagione notes will become available coast to coast in late July.
The beer, naturally, stands tall next to seafood, with lime juice and saltwater from the mouth of the Chesapeake. “We reduced the salt water, we make our own salt, and then we add the salt and the lime to this really special beer,” he explains.
Dogfish’s rapid expansion into the restaurant world has been a natural fit. In addition to the brewpub and Chesapeake & Maine, Dogfish operates Bunyan’s Lunchbox, a food truck adjacent to its tasting room in Milton, Delaware, as well as Alehouses in Gaithersburg, Maryland, Fairfax, Virginia, and Falls Church, Virginia.
Calagione mentions that Dogfish has plans to expand its food program in Milton and also has worked with La Birreria/Eataly on collaborations.
“We definitely love the overlap of the high-end culinary experience with high-end, flavor-forward craft beers, and we’re going to continue to explore projects to allow us to celebrate how well they go together,” Calagione says. “… Brewers are chefs that just happen to make liquid food. That’s just how I’ve always approached it. Our brewery was kind of the first 21 years ago to focus on making mostly beers with culinary ingredients. So now, there’s hundreds, if not thousands of breweries brewing beers with ingredients in addition to water, yeast, hops, and barely. But when Dogfish started 21 years with this off-centered mission of using these culinary ingredients in beer, we were not considered cool. We were considered weirdos and heretics. It’s nice to see how much the industry has come toward what Dogfish has been doing; we haven’t had to bend toward the status quo.”