Restaurant Review: Ostra in Boston
Perhaps you were wondering whether the economy is recovering. Perhaps you were even a bit worried. After sitting down at Ostra, Jamie Mammano’s opulent new fish restaurant in the heart of the Theater District, however, you’ll worry no more—except, that is, about whether you’ll be able to foot the bill.
At Mistral and Sorellina, Mammano made his name creating luxury fare at luxury prices—generally for the class that flies conspicuously above the radar, and seldom flies commercial. After opening its doors in 1997, Mistral quickly gained popularity among Boston’s elite by offering clean, modern design, very good food, and even better service. But as the restaurant found its loyal clientele, generally people who live in suburbs that start with a “W,” the food lost any kind of innovative edge: Those customers want to be coddled, not challenged. Sorellina, on the ground floor of one of the Back Bay’s most expensive condo skyscrapers, was the logical next step: sort-of Italian cuisine in a room where chic charger plates and pristine décor signaled that comfortable C-suite clients counted more than interesting food or accessible prices.
Ostra, then, is squarely in the tradition of Sorellina, and what Mistral settled into: It’s high-ceilinged, with stark accents (huge, blown-up black-and-white photographs; elegant but chilly gray mosaics of sea life) and butterscotch-colored leather banquettes as comfortable as you’d imagine the recliners to be on the private jets you won’t fly on. Each time I dined at Ostra there were couples and families there for special occasions, but the customers looked mostly
like they lived in the luxury condos above the restaurant, or nearby at the Heritage, W, and Millennium. Service hovers somewhere between formal and fawning, with tableside presentations and ceremony that have gone the way of the white-gloved waiters at the late Ritz dining room. There’s even a piano in the lounge, reminiscent of what the best hotels should have—with live music so good, and chairs so comfortable, that the bar will become a destination in itself.
Mammano’s new space is also in the tradition of another notable restaurant: Milos, the midtown Manhattan spot that, like Ostra (“oyster” in Spanish and Portuguese), has a wide, dramatic bed of whole fish set into crushed ice just past the host stand. At each of my three dinners, at least one guest remarked on the resemblance. Like Milos, sticker shock is guaranteed. Unlike Milos, where a large number of entrées are marked “market price by the pound” and the pounds add up lethally, the prices here are all listed—and all it takes is one look at the menu to elicit a wince.
Also like Milos, the quality of the fish at Ostra is impeccable. I’ve seldom had or even seen such fresh fish, both of the shell and fin variety. Mammano’s Columbus Hospitality Group employs its own fishmonger, executive chef Mitchell Randall told me, who goes to the Boston fish pier each morning and buys what looks good from a regular round of suppliers, many of whom you’ll find listed on the menu. Much of the fish is local and sustainable and blah blah blah, but a good deal of it is farmed in Greece or South America. Here it’s opulence that counts, not earnestness.
Much of the preparation matches the impeccable quality, subtly but not showily enhancing the fish. Paella was as rustic and full-flavored as the kinds cooked in worn-thin, blackened steel pans over charcoal fires in the Valencian countryside. Oh, the mussels and quarter-size slices of sausage may have been a little rubbery, but that happens in even the best of paellas. A viscous seafood stock, fortified with chicken, suffused each morsel of tender short-grain bomba rice, with the bottom layer providing the slightly charred crunch paella lovers live for. It was all exemplary, and unexpected in a restaurant that takes an essentially steakhouse approach to fish, with very simple preparations and moderate amounts of plain vegetables on side plates. (Given the small portions, you might want to order one of the half-dozen side dishes, like the modestly inventive roasted cauliflower with almonds and thinly sliced grapes, $10.) Pan-roasted halibut exemplified that steakhouse approach—a big piece of luxurious protein, served almost naked on the plate—and tasted positively beefy, dense and moist and deceptively simple.
There is also actual steak, and it’s better than at most steakhouses, if the grilled sirloin—12 ounces of perfectly tender beef—was any indication. The vin cotto, or reduced red wine sauce, below it was beyond pro forma, with the juices of the meat strengthening its flavor. The amount of compound butter melted over the top was carefully gauged to enrich but not overwhelm the meat, a level of finesse all too rare in steakhouses.
Now check out the prices: $44 for the paella, $44 for the steak, $38 for the halibut.
The preparations don’t always live up to the cost—or the high quality of the ingredients. Neither does the service. Most of the time, it’s discreetly attentive. But then there will be a supercilious server who somehow acts like it’s your fault that the little white porcelain beaker that’s supposed to hold bouillabaisse broth beside fried calamari rings ($14) arrives empty, and fetches it grudgingly. (The broth is just a thimbleful, but so powerful and right that it soars to the top of Boston’s best, alongside those at La Voile and Bistro du Midi.) Or another who constantly interrupts to ask if everything is tasting good or if you’d like another glass of wine just when you’re exchanging whispered confidences (at one meal this became almost comical).
And there shouldn’t be cooking glitches you wouldn’t forgive three months into even a more modestly priced restaurant’s dinner service: the gas fumes that permeated the grilled bread under a tomato jam and good, moist Serrano ham ($22), as well as the otherwise terrific tentacles and bodies of grilled Spanish octopus ($24), the best first course. The stratospherically expensive imported branzino for two under a spectacular salt meringue crust, broken with the utmost ceremony and carefully deboned to reveal steak-size fillets, should not have emerged from its stunning, scalloped dome so pink and bloody that the waiter had to send it back to be run under the broiler, ruining the moist succulence that the long roasting under the salt case was meant to create. (What do I mean by stratospheric? A cool $90.)
Desserts by Jennifer Luna, the pastry chef at other Mammano restaurants, are fine, with some lovely surprises—such as soothing, nicely flavored old-fashioned chocolate ice cream (three to four ice cream flavors offered, three scoops for $9), or a meringue “snow egg” delicately encasing lemon-curd mousse ($11). And before dinner it’s very easy to go through several ovals of her dense ciabatta, served warm and covered with dark chips of thinly sliced potatoes and onions—and served at no extra charge.
The best fish entrée we had happened to be the least expensive: a daily special of scup, one of the under-used local and sustainable fish that Randall says he likes to feature. It was immaculately served with a deeply tomato-y ragout of San Marzano tomatoes with chorizo and roasted piquillo peppers. A relative bargain, at $27!
Really, though, there’s not much point in quibbling about price. Ostra is a case of “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.” But if you don’t have to, and you can, then please enjoy that paella and sirloin for me.
Grilled Spanish Octopus • $24
Paella • $44
Grilled Sirloin • $44
Halibut • $38
“Snow Egg”• $11
Ostra, One Charles St., Boston, 617-421-1200, ostraboston.com.
Critic Corby Kummer—an editor at the Atlantic and author of The Pleasures of Slow Food—has been reviewing Greater Boston’s top restaurants in our pages since 1997.