Dining Out: Smooth Sailing
The last thing Boston needs, you might think, is another cute oyster bar. Jasper White invigorated the form with Summer Shack, where suddenly there was a determinedly casual alternative to Legal Sea Foods and the always-convivial and historic Union Oyster House. Then Barbara Lynch gave us B & G Oysters, in the South End, with the urban excitement of a Barcelona tapas bar and a neat little repertoire of fish dishes (more French and New American than Mediterranean) along with an emphasis on a limited nightly selection of oysters. B & G filled a gap I hadn't known was there.
Neptune Oyster, in the North End, will fill that same gap. The welcome is positively Cheers-like, with the owner, Jeff Nace, standing behind the high polished-marble bar and Kelli, his wife, managing the flow through this tiny and extremely appealing restaurant. Nace ran the bar at Olives for 12 years, so his ability to make people feel at home—and turn tables—shouldn't be surprising. Nor should the really interesting wine list, with medium-priced bottles that roam the world.
Rather than Barcelona tapas, Neptune evokes Paris bistro and New Orleans oyster bar and does it deliberately. The etched glass door, the marble bar, the wide and bright white tiles and cream-colored pressed-tin ceiling, the nickel lamps, the dark red leather banquettes, the specials chalked on the mirrors—this could be Montparnasse, this could be in the Quarter. I'm a sucker for this kind of detail (everything looks great, including the bathroom sink), the general congenial spirits of the whole place, and the comfortable high chairs opposite the banquettes. I wanted to love everything at Neptune Oyster the minute I stepped through the glamorous door, which promises another world right next to Dairy Fresh Candies, one of my favorite North End haunts.
I still intend to. Though the menu is trim, with perfectly fresh seafood and an exemplary raw bar, the dishes need focus and polish. I'm up for the wait—my office is a five-minute walk away, and there's nothing else like this in the North End. And though there are just a handful of tables, my parties of four never had to wait long (I wasn't recognized), so the no-reservations policy doesn't seem to be an obstacle, even given the place's instant popularity. The service couldn't be perkier (and our waitress at several dinners couldn't have been prettier or more wholesome), and the vibe is just as friendly.
The food feels more Todd English than David Nevins—understandably given that fresh out of the Culinary Institute of America (English's alma mater), the chef worked for years at Olives and then as chef de cuisine at Kingfish Hall, my favorite jewel in the English crown. You see it straight away in the crowded plates with a feeling of oil-slicked abundance: chopped herbs and fried colorful beans, sautéed vegetables tucked under huge fish fillets, not just a little red sauce on lobster spaghettini, but a lot (and a lot of lobster—the Monday-night special cost $33 the night I was there), melted butter everywhere on a (great) warm lobster roll, heaps of fried calamari with bright sauces practically leaping out of little dishes, and fried oysters or clams or shrimp (or all three, the right choice) poking out of tartar-sauced po' boys. The whole place wants to make you happy, and as is the English way, more of everything is the quickest way to a diner's heart.
And much of the menu will make you happy, especially the proudly not-greaseless fried food and the very fresh and good raw bar. A few signature dishes are in clear focus—that lobster roll, the po' boy, a tuna carpaccio that's really sashimi niçoise—and will become standbys. The others need some editing and oil reduction. Call it English detox.
Nevins clearly wants to make his own mark. He seems to have been impressed by another Boston star, Ken Oringer, in his main area of innovation, and probably also by David Pasternack, the chef who changed New Yorkers' idea of fish by serving a bit of everything raw at Esca (which means “bait”). Neptune's “crudo raw bar special” can be raw salmon and smoked salmon with fried nuggets of leftover risotto, or one I'm still working up my nerve to try: short rib carpaccio ($12.50), seared on the outside and served with French goat cheese, fried garlic, mâche, and onions.
Nevins wants to tinker with classics, too. His clam chowder ($7) is made to order, so no cooked-to-a-floury-paste milk base, just a béchamel (white sauce)-based cream soup with lots of fresh clams. A good idea, but it tastes thin and undercooked, somewhere between a chowder and a pan roast. The oyster stew ($8.50) is really a Manhattan chowder with the New York name omitted (the menu calls it “minestrone”). It's a good soup, with an honest tomato and salt-pork-seasoned clam stock base, but so drowned in oregano that it smells, and mysteriously tastes, like liquid pizza. Nevins's take on cioppino ($20.50) is more successful, a powerful and peppery broth with roasted and long-cooked lobster bodies and plenty of garlic. It's more a Provençal fish soup than a cioppino, making you look for the rouille-topped baguette rounds; whatever it is, it's good, with generous amounts of seafood on top.
The fish main courses are similarly generous, with close attention to fresh and good ingredients, but echo the English tendency to overadorn. (Actually, the cioppino does, too, with a gluey wad of orange, but not very saffron-tasting rice plunked in.) I was impressed with the size and flavor of the rainbow trout ($21), usually a mealy and disappointing farmed fish, and liked the sauéed escarole beneath it. Even the fried red beans were nice and crunchy, but they add too much butter on top of the oil-sautéed fish, and too much garnish.
Best to stay where the butter and oil are integral: the fried calamari ($11) with aioli and vibrant cherry peppers, or the fritto misto po' boy ($14.50), which gives you a taste of just how well Nevins fries everything, in a crunchy tempura-like batter whose secrets the chef told me he plans to keep for himself, on a fresh eggy roll spread with a thick and good tartar sauce. It's one of the few comparative bargains on the menu. And then there are the two masterly creations: a warm lobster roll ($19), bursting with butter-sautéed lobster meat on a buttered bun (it's available cold with mayo, take the warm one); and the tuna carpaccio ($12.50), with raw-sliced tuna that feels opulent and wholly satisfying. With this abundance you won't need dessert—and in a nod to local tradition, you won't get any. Neptune Oyster might be different from its North End fellows, but it aims to be a good neighbor.