Sometimes you have to look back to move forward.
John Snyder grew up on St. Simons Island, a barrier isle off the coast of Georgia. Hunting and fishing were a part of the natural rhythm of life. Starting in the fall, he went out for white-tailed deer, mallard ducks and turkeys, the occasional wild hog. Late in the year, around the time of the first frost, he canoed up the Altamaha River to go fishing with his grandfather, Leroy Regin, who Snyder calls “a badass guy.”
For dinner, the pair harvested oysters from the river. His grandfather would put a pot over the campfire, toss in freshly shucked bivalves along with lots of cream and butter, smoked fatback and a few seasonings — thyme, paprika, celery salt. The blaze added a sultry smokiness to the chowder, a taste of the wild. It was one of Snyder’s favorite dishes growing up, one inextricably bound to the special times he spent with his grandfather.
This fall, Snyder is bringing his sophisticated reimagination of the dish to The Setting, the svelte tasting menu restaurant he runs in West End with his fiancée, director of operations Kiran Saund, and beverage director Nick Hopkins.
Of course, he had to zhuzh up the recipe, which he split into two components, served side by side. First, a Huckleberry oyster from True Chesapeake Oyster Co. in southern Maryland on the Chesapeake Bay.
“They have cucumber notes, but are lightly sweet as well,” says Snyder. “The meat is slightly firm, slightly creamy.”
The second element is an oyster “cappuccino,” really a decadent chowder amped with hickory smoked fatback, alliums galore, a flurry of fresh herbs. Taken together, the presentation is alive with the haze of the campfire — briny, intensely rich. Close your eyes and you can imagine Snyder’s fishing trips. The chef hasn’t had the opportunity to share his version with his grandfather, but he hopes there’s a chance to do so the next time they visit his family.
Family is important to the couple, who met while attending The Culinary Institute of America in 2017.
Saund grew up in the D.C. area, so after they graduated, “I brought him home with me,” she jokes.
When the pandemic hit, they both lost their jobs. Not missing a beat, the pair began creating luxury to-go dining boxes, multi-course tasting menus brimming with high-end ingredients: uni, caviar, Wagyu beef and foie gras. Promoted only on Instagram and by word of mouth, the artfully arranged boxes regularly sold out shortly after going on sale.
That brought the couple to the attention of Dino Lonzano, owner of Market Street Diamonds, a boutique jewelry shop in West End. He transformed the subterranean space below his shop into a chic restaurant and bar; he just needed a team to run it. Saund and Snyder, along with Hopkins, partnered with Lonzano to open The Setting in November of last year.
It’s not just the name that takes its cues from the gemmy venture upstairs; much of the seating is covered in crushed velvet, and desserts arrive in a jewelry box. The restaurant is open for a single seating Thursday through Saturday for a 10-course, 3-hour tasting menu experience enjoyed entirely by hand without a single piece of silverware. (Walk-ins are welcome to sit at the bar to enjoy drinks and small bites.)
Meals end with a trip to the kitchen. Given the elegance, complexity and duration of the tasting menus, guests are expecting to step into a sleek, sizeable operation. Instead, a simple black curtain is whisked aside to reveal a compact space a little larger than an airline galley. Every piece of equipment Snyder cooks on — a pair of induction burners, a fryer, a panini press serving double duty as a plancha, a
Robot Coupe and a few other toys — can be plugged into a normal outlet.
“Usually, it shocks the hell out of people,” Snyder admits. “We just want to show them what’s possible.”