If John Herrigel gets his way, it won’t be long before the oyster replaces the lobster as the iconic symbol of Maine.

A small-scale oyster farmer as well as owner and general manager of Maine Oyster Co., Herrigel spends most of his time thinking about oysters. These days, what’s on his mind is a near-term future where he foresees both a looming crisis and glimmering opportunity.

“We’re going to hit a point in three to five years where our supply is going to triple,” he said. “Right now, most of the 10-20 million oysters we grow in Maine get eaten in the state; very little gets out. So we have to figure out what to do when that supply goes way up…if we can’t get those oysters out of Maine, get people to want them, the price is going to drop.”

Opening a casual bar-restaurant in the middle of Portland may seem like a strange way to stave off such a price collapse. But Herrigel’s strategy involves more than just selling raw seafood, craft beer and Prosecco on tap ($9) to locals from his “general store chic” digs in Bayside.

Indeed, his 25-seat venue is equal parts restaurant and ministry, a spot where he hopes anyone with a connection to farming oysters – or a passion for eating them – will be able to meet other devotees. Together, they’ll form a blended community to celebrate the oyster and go on to champion it here and abroad.

Have you heard the good news?

If not, sign up for one of Maine Oyster Company’s frequent themed events. There are shucking classes, wine pairing dinners and even a costume night called the “80s Sweat and Slurp.”

Still not enough for you? Then join the Boom Shuck-A-Lucka club ($59); you’ll score a T-shirt, a 10-cent discount on every shucked oyster and a shucking knife, not to mention a dozen oysters every year.

“I’m a connector, and this place is a hub where consumers and growers meet and can disseminate information,” Herrigel said. “I want this place to be the bullhorn, and I want everyone who comes here to be fired up to share the story of the oyster.”

Eventually, he also plans to sell oysters on a retail basis, but for the moment, they are only available shucked ($2.50 each/$15 for six/$29 for a dozen), pried open underneath a papier mâché shell strung with blinking lights.

On my recent visit, Herrigel’s own Cape Smalls oysters, grown on his property in Phippsburg, were not on the menu, but six other local varieties were. Two from Casco Bay: sweet, tiny Basket Islands and sultry, slipper-shaped Mere Points; as well as enormous, mineral Nonesuch oysters from Scarborough, assertive Wild Damariscottas, muscularly briny MDIs from Bar Harbor, and well-balanced Eros Oysters from Georgetown (my favorites of the night). I would very happily eat any of these oysters again.

Shuckers Jason Viggiano, left, and Shaun Norris work beneath a large, LED-lit papier-mâché oyster.

However, chef Todd Bullis’s mignonettes were hit-or-miss. His classic version, made of not much more than Champagne vinegar and minced shallot, was lovely. Yet his orange juice, Sriracha and Allagash beer-hops-vinegar mignonette was another story. “Careful with this stuff,” my server warned, motioning toward a tiny vial of Day-Glo fluid as if it were radioactive. “A little goes a long way.”

Unfortunately, I soon learned that anything beyond a single drop of the concentrated brew was too much. Add more, and it will taste like someone has sprinkled Tang on your oyster.

Bullis doesn’t shy away from citrus in other dishes, either. By blending lemon juice, dill and mayonnaise, he creates what Herrigel calls a “lemonade sauce” for dressing lobster meat. On the lobster crostini ($11), it is spooned onto lifeless baguette toasts that make the dish feel like leftover hors d’oeuvres someone might have scavenged from a gallery opening. The best part is, surprisingly, the nest of simple, vinaigrette-spritzed lettuce at the center of the plate.

Diners Igor Prokopiw and Deborah Williams study the menu on a night out at Maine Oyster Co.

On the other hand, in the West Bayside lobster roll ($17) – where freshly picked Phippsburg lobster meat spills out over the sides of a buttery, panini-grilled hot dog bun – it works. Dill and lemon aren’t for purists, but they give the sandwich a pleasing Nordic twinkle that feels right for a chilly January evening.

So too, the fantastic coriander-and-white-vinegar-pickled crudité ($5): bright, acerbic slices of red pepper, crunchy baby carrots, dilly beans and tender, blanched asparagus spears.

And while January isn’t traditionally ice cream sandwich season up here in the Northern Hemisphere, the C. Love Cookie Project version ($6) is good enough to make you reconsider your frozen-treat prejudices. Each one comes wrapped in parchment paper cinched with blue-and-white cotton twine. Inside are two homemade chocolate chip cookies – underbaked so they remain blond and doughy – that bookend a fat disc of vanilla ice cream.

It’s an unfussy finish that fits right in with the informal vibe of Maine Oyster Company. “If you feel like it, you can take that (dessert) up to the front and check out our map,” my server suggested as he cleared the table. “It shows where tonight’s oysters come from.”

So I stood, looking at the outline of jagged, finger-like peninsulas and islands, taking bites of my dribbling ice cream sandwich as a shucker told me how this was the best job he had held so far. “I mean, I like oysters,” he said. “But since I started working here, I just can’t stop talking about them.” I don’t know if Herrigel was within earshot, but if he was, he probably would have smiled. Mission accomplished.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of two 2018 Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association. Contact him at:

andrewross.maine @gmail.com

Twitter: AndrewRossME

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