Restaurant Review: Row 34 in Boston

At Island Creek Oyster’s new sibling, the fish is always fresh—and the simplest preparations show it off the best.

dining out

Row 34’s vast raw-bar menu includes a variety of oysters on the half shell, house-smoked fish, and fresh lobster. Photo by David Salafia

At Row 34, you can order a grilled whole scup with black, crackly, oil-brushed skin, moist ivory flesh, and enough fresh-picked thyme and almond-shaped slices of garlic to transport you to a wood fire on a Greek island. Or a lobster roll that captures the essence of sweet, barely saline lobster, heaped into a buttery grilled roll with such a festive abundance of red and pink claw meat and white nubs of knuckle and tail meat that it’s the sandwich equivalent of a Fourth of July fireworks display over Boothbay Harbor.

Or you can innocently order salmon, and get a big, inert baked fillet ($26) atop a wan bed of shaved fennel, cucumber, and yogurt—a pallid, pale dish you may forget even as you eat it. At Row 34, the big, glossy new restaurant from the team behind Island Creek Oyster Bar, how you order is more important than you might think. Everything’s fresh, the place jumps, and the menu is designed to be homey. But like many restaurants, there’s a fine line between “Gee, I wish I could make this as well at home” and “For this I left my kitchen table?” Row 34 is usually on the right side of that question. But not always.

row 34

Photo by David Salafia

Open since November in a former steel factory, Row 34 has a much sleeker, starker feel than its sibling, with subway tiles, stainless steel counters, and, on one high wall, three dozen perforated, chromed, cylindrical oyster sorters mounted as an art installation. In place of craft cocktails there are 24 beers on tap, and in place of ICOB cocktail maestro Jackson Cannon, there is Megan Parker-Gray, the “beer sommelier” who’ll insist you try a new lambic or gueuze—sour, spontaneously fermented beers that bring out the brine in a Katama oyster, from Martha’s Vineyard, or a Rhode Island East Beach Blonde.

Keeping things simple, as Jeremy Sewall and Garrett Harker repeatedly stated as their goal in the press surrounding the restaurant’s opening, means relying on excellent product, and for Row 34 this is no problem. Sewall knows quality. His summers taught him simplicity. He grew up in a multigeneration Maine-based fishing family—his cousin Mark, a lobsterman in York, catches “every lobster” Sewall sells at Island Creek; his own Lineage, in Coolidge Corner; and Row 34. Having a cousin who fishes professionally guarantees provenance. A third partner—Skip Bennett, of Duxbury’s Island Creek Oysters—runs a bivalve farm with, as it happens, 34 rows of oyster racks where the creatures filter food and fatten.

Oysters, of course, are so foundational that Row 34 better get them right. It does, with fast service, careful presentation on ice in galvanized metal trays, and classic mignonette dipping sauces—homemade and not too assertive, geared just so to set off and not distract from the pristine oysters. Your server will tell you that the Row 34 varietal ($2.50 each)—similar to the flagship Island Creek oyster but deliberately raised at the top of the vertical beds, far from the bottom—is more delicate and mineral-y than the Island Creek. When it came to ordering round two, I stuck with the Island Creeks ($2.50 each), which were fleshier and deeper-flavored.

row 34

Photo by David Salafia

The raw-bar menu includes a variety of smoked and cured seafood ($9 apiece), on a checklist alongside the day’s oysters (there’s a short list of crudo and ceviche, too). Sewall says he lets his cooks play around with the entries, altering the cures and spices as they like—which leads to varying results. Their penchant for citrus rind and citrus oil, for example, can get excessive, as it was in the smoked trout in a candied orange sauce. And the smoke in both shrimp with orange segments and the scallops had a funky, tarry undertone. But neither smoke nor citrus could distort the quality of the seafood: The scallops were succulent, the flakes of trout as rich as sablefish. Dramatically presented on slate with house pickles and grilled bread, the smoked and cured platters made a spectacular start to the meal. They’re also much more affordable than the $80 shellfish tower: The kitchen will make a generous selection of everything on the list for $21 a head.

Fried anything here is a good bet: oysters in “lettuce cups” with pickled vegetables ($12), a take on the Asian-fusion lettuce wrap; thin, dark-crisped onion rings dusted with Old Bay ($7); thick handcut fries that Harker first tasted at Lineage and insisted go on the menu at Row 34 ($7).

Cute little grilled shrimp sliders ($4 each) were a winning take on the popular oyster sliders at Island Creek, with smoked onions and bread-and-butter pickles on teeny brioche buns slathered with paprika-spiked aioli. And steamed littlenecks ($14) in a buttery, garlicky broth were irresistible, thanks to puréed scallions and pilsner. You’ll want more of the grilled sourdough to sop up that sauce.

row 34

Row 34’s overflowing lobster roll. Photo by David Salafia

But then the simple tips over into the dull. Appetizers of tuna tartare ($14) and deviled crab toast ($15) were both anemic in flavor, despite red onion and a touch of sesame oil in the tuna, and little hints of Dijon and smoked pepper in the crab. And the house-extruded bucatini with clams and garlic crumbs ($25) lost its al dente chew midway through each bite, nearly collapsing into mush.

One main that sounded boring, however, was a beautifully executed surprise. Baked hake ($25) with Dijon–bread crumb topping, served with a red-rice pilaf, was just what you’d like to come home to—no fancier than you’d make on a weeknight but executed flawlessly, with a topping that was crunchy and fresh, and a fillet that was lovely and delicate.

Desserts (all $6) are few, and, in line with the rest of the menu, fairly straightforward. The butterscotch pudding with real scotch purloined from Lineage was reliable; a riff on a Snickers candy bar pleasantly sweet, with high-quality caramel and chocolate; a rhubarb hand pie, nicely gooey.

When the simplicity works, it rockets. There are those lobster rolls made with Cousin Mark’s lobster, one served hot with butter ($25) and one served cold with mayo, dill pickles, and celery salt ($24), both of them destination- worthy. And there’s that grilled scup ($27)! It’s the second such rehabilitation of the former trash fish I’ve had in a few months, and as at the colossally expensive Ostra, where it was relatively affordable, it muscled all rivals off the plate and the table. What Sewall and the kitchen show with the lobster rolls and that grilled fish is that they can hit bull’s-eyes as big and as shiny as those oyster-sorter light sculptures. At Row 34, it starts and ends with the fish. It’s best not to mess with much in between.

MENU HIGHLIGHTS

Grilled whole scup $27
Lobster roll $24
Shrimp sliders$4 each
Steamed littlenecks $14

Row 34, 383 Congress St., Boston, 617-553-5900, row34.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.

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