SALTWATER RUNS THROUGH Shamil Velazquez’s veins. The Delaney Oyster House executive chef hails from the island of Puerto Rico and says “it was music to my ears” when he was tapped to helm the opening of the seafood-centric restaurant last fall. The latest venture of The Neighborhood Dining Group (NDG), whose multistate portfolio includes Charleston legends McCrady’s and Husk, the eatery joins a small handful of shellfish houses serving the port city, with briny fare and subtle hints of the chef’s Latin American culture.
“I got a call from David Howard (NDG president), and he said, ‘I have this idea for a project, and we think you’re the perfect fit to run the kitchen,’” explains Velazquez, who was working at the time at the Husk property in Greenville, South Carolina. “I originally wanted to come to Charleston to work close to the beach and avail myself of all the seafood in the Lowcountry but was given the opportunity to open the upstate Husk.”
Velazquez says he started cooking at a young age and soon shipped off to the States for a culinary arts degree from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York. After an internship in Napa, California, opened his eyes to this “chefs’ city” centered around everything food and wine, he landed a job at Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen in nearby St. Helena, California.
“Cindy Pawlcyn had so much knowledge and experience,” says Velazquez. “I learned a lot about simplicity—humble cooking using seasonal ingredients. She made me a sous chef at 21.”
Velazquez went on to assist with the opening of The Restaurant at CIA Copia in Napa before moving to Washington, D.C. for a stint with Spanish-American celebrity chef José Andrés.
“I’m a firm believer in limiting a plate to three or four ingredients and calling it a day,” notes Velazquez. “I use high-quality products and let them speak for themselves, incorporate influences from some of my travels—nothing complicated—and proper technique. Less is more.”
Velazquez points to the white shrimp ajillo and blue crab rice dishes on his menu as reflective of the Latin influences in his cooking style. Author’s note: I tried both and, with rich flavors and touches of heat, was transported to the Caribbean.
“I put my seal on them; I’m very proud of them. You’ll always see hints of my culture in my food,” the chef says.
Delaney Oyster House general manager Kevin King explains how coastal culture influences the terroir of the wine program at Delaney Oyster House.
“We bring in wines from regions where people are enjoying great seafood—the Mediterranean, Spain, Italy, Portugal,” he says. “We’re mostly looking for lighter styles of whites, reds, rosés. We focus on Champagne as well, even though it’s not coastal, but its terroir often includes fossilized seashells. We chill our reds—lighter, juicier reds work well for that.”
The Seattle native also manages the cocktail program, which showcases an updated version of the classic martini: shaken, topped with a fine layer of ice. He says the rest of the list features refreshing and effervescent drinks like spritzers, highball, and sours—no brown spirits—enhancing the light, delicate nature of seafood.
The restaurant itself is an updated version of the classic Charleston Single House. Guided by a vision of understated elegance, the NDG opening team, which included Howard, Velazquez, King and vice president Kenny Lyons, had the 19th-century property refreshed using a neutral palette throughout the first and second floors. Heart pine flooring and a fireplace with an ornate mantel were restored to their former beauty. Cozy tables were added to the piazzas for gracious alfresco dining.
Seated at a window overlooking Calhoun Street and historic Mother Emanuel AME Church, my guest and I were quickly charmed by the chic yet comfortable ambiance. Our server, Bradley, was supremely versed in all things maritime and left us with a list of half-shells available that day, with notations by the shucker and the names of each aquatic farmer.
We started with a round of half-shells presented with a sprig of kelp over crushed ice. All were perfectly prepped—clean and uniform. The assortment included Shipwrecks from Prince Edward Island and Beausoleils from New Brunswick. We also enjoyed littleneck clams from South Carolina.
Maine lobster arrived next, bite-sized and packed back into its shell. Velazquez says he poaches the meat in a liquid flavored with kombu (kelp) and lemons, then gives it a citrusy marinade. Fresh tarragon and mace mayo droplets finished the elegant dish.
A ceviche comprised of local flounder was brightly flavored by carrot-ginger juice spiked with lime misto oil. Crunchy dukkah, an Egyptian seed and nut mixture, added wonderful texture to the dish, which was finished with a dollop of yogurt.
Commonly found on food trucks in Puerto Rico, Velazquez’s octopus escabeche vied with the previous contenders for our favor. Chef says he cooks the cephalopod sous vide, scented with orange peel, and dresses it in a high-acidity vinaigrette notched up with Calabrian chilies and briny olives.
With the high standards Charleston has come to expect of The Neighborhood Dining Group, Delaney Oyster House delivers the classic American shellfish experience with Puerto Rican flair: an exciting melting pot reflective of African, Latin American and Caribbean cultures.*
Wendy Swat Snyder is a Charleston-based freelance writer (sweetgrassandgrits.com).