Dining Out: Island Creek Oyster Bar

With an impressive raw bar and some of the freshest fish around, this Kenmore Square newcomer is reeling in crowds.

By Corby Kummer | Boston Magazine |
Photo by Keller + Keller

Photo by Keller + Keller

THREE REASONS Island Creek Oyster Bar has been an early hit: It has a big space that’s fun to be in, a restaurateur who knows how to make a lot of people happy even when the place is packed, and a chef who knows both how to get good fish and how to best show off its flavor. Oh, and having a co-owner who runs a thriving oyster farm helps, too.

Sound like a sure-fire success? Not so fast. That huge space in Kenmore Square seemed cursed. Island Creek’s predecessor, Great Bay, stayed stubbornly half empty till it closed in 2009; despite an entire wall of two-story windows, the place felt dark, cavernous, and a little spooky. And large spots have been particularly ominous in this economy: Rocca and Ginger Park — two stylish, independent restaurants in neighborhoods full of people who eat out — closed at the end of last year. It would take a major makeover and a smart strategy to bring the Kenmore property back to life.

Luckily, Island Creek had a master strategist: co-owner Garrett Harker, who turned Eastern Standard, on the other side of the Hotel Commonwealth, into a crowded hit, with food and décor straight from a French brasserie playbook. Much of what makes the restaurant work is his talent for pleasing both locals and the stream of Fenway-going crowds. He seems to be doing that at Island Creek, too. As with Eastern Standard, the new restaurant’s bar scene is an integral part of the fun, and with bar manager Jackson Cannon now running the cocktail program at both restaurants, people are coming to Island Creek just for his drinks. And the place looks great — casual, inviting, and not at all scary. The brightened space takes oysters as its theme: wire crates filled with oyster shells along the walls, oyster-gray banquettes, and silvery wood-plank screens that slide across the windows.

As for the food, it’s aimed squarely at seafood fans, with absolutely fresh fish and shellfish. That’s guaranteed by the expertise of its other co-owners: chef Jeremy Sewall, who, not incidentally, opened Great Bay and has been helping Harker at Eastern Standard while keeping his own Brookline restaurant, Lineage, busy; and Skip Bennett, the Duxbury oyster farmer who made Island Creek Oysters a prestige brand in Boston and beyond. The restaurant gets not just its pick of perfect oysters but, through Bennett and Sewall’s friends, excellent New England fish and seafood, too. It’s sparkling and, with only a few exceptions, cooked to exactly the right degree — a remarkable feat given the 175 seats and the high rate of turnover.

The way to sample both Sewall and Island Creek at their finest is to start with oysters and stick with time-tested family recipes. As for the rest, well, the fish is seldom anything other than first-rate. But the dishes themselves are uneven. Specials are particularly hit-and-miss — though one was the best dish I had in four dinners.
After tasting all eight of the New England oyster varieties on the menu (there are about 12 total; the number varies), my favorites were the Island Creeks ($2 each), and not only because of the name. Their flavor is a lovely mixture of flint and sugar, with the light, smoky sweetness of a mint julep. Rocky Nooks ($2 each), meanwhile, were refreshing and saline.

Sewall’s lobster comes from his cousin Mark in Maine, whose name, listed on the menu, has become familiar to Sewall followers. The baked stuffed lobster ($32) is as irresistible as it is buttery, a signature, celebratory dish filled with a bready, eggy stuffing. A lobster roll ($19), though, with plenty of lobster meat on a homemade rosemary roll, was all butter, and the bread lacked flavor. We left it largely untouched.

The star of the menu is the seafood casserole, a staple of Bennett’s mother’s table. The binder is an “old-school sherry cream sauce,” as Sewall calls it, but there’s nothing floury or pasty about it. It has strong-flavored stock and an abundance of lobster, scallops, shrimp, cod, and haddock; and comes baked to order with a rich crust of crushed saltines, in portions sized for one ($24), two ($40), or four ($72). You’d be crazy not to try it, even if that meant missing out on other noteworthy fish dishes, such as the Faroe Islands salmon with brown-butter cauliflower and garlic-parsley purée ($26). The fish had good, almost wild flavor, unlike the usual bland orange fat that passes for Atlantic salmon. The accompaniments, though, were just-okay distractions rather than integral complements — a problem with nearly every main course.

Another winning fish was grilled dorade (sea bream) with shaved Meyer lemon, roasted fennel, artichoke confit, and potato-and-olive niçoise ($32) — as much a taste of the Mediterranean as the casserole was a taste of New England. The accompanying vegetables had zing, and the deep flavor that results from long cooking with olive oil and Mediterranean herbs.

You would be safe missing the cod — I know cod is dull, but it doesn’t have to be this dull—with a disappointingly flat cornmeal crust ($28). The same goes for the clam chowder ($10), in a thin broth overwhelmed by bacon. Yellowfin tuna with yellow carrots, black rice, and a citrus-ginger butter ($27) was fine but routine — a dish pumped out by a busy kitchen on a busy night.

That’s the downside of Island Creek’s success so soon after opening. Then again, sometimes Sewall will toss off a special that shows him at the top of his game, such as a starter of sweet Maine shrimp ($11), lightly fried and presented with spicy mayo. Or a whole black bass ($32). The beautiful fish, with its black-incised pattern of scales that looked like a Japanese or Chinese print, was flash-fried, then set over a vaguely Asian shellfish broth with buckwheat noodles, braised mustard greens, and chewy cubes of house-made tasso ham. It was a masterly dish, worth eating to the very last nugget.

Sadly, the desserts (all $8) can leave you with a bad impression of the kitchen — something dessert should never do. A dish of cookies and ice milk, for instance, featured soft, greasy disks served with a whitish slush that tasted like a retro Weight Watchers shake. Peanut butter frozen yogurt was better, and a lemon meringue special had a nicely flavored curd, though both the meringue and the pie crust were underbaked. Island Creek’s sweets need work to come up to the level of the seafood.

But that fish? It can hardly be improved on. And if occasionally mechanical dishes are the price of a throbbing place that manages crowds with a warm welcome, then I’ll take it — and bring along anybody who wants to figure out why New England seafood (and okay, Fenway) matters to the world.

500 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, 617-532-5300, islandcreekoysterbar.com.

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2011/02/dining-out-island-creek-oyster-bar-review/