First Bite: Rowes Wharf Sea Grille

The star restaurant at the posh Boston Harbor Hotel has always been Meritage, but when we heard that the more casual Intrigue Cafe was morphing into a seafood spot, we’ve wondered whether the reigning champ might face some internal competition. What visitor to Boston doesn’t crave lobster and shellfish?

As it turns out, Meritage needn’t worry: Rowes Wharf Sea Grille, which opened in late May, is still decidedly lower-key than its upstairs counterpart. There’s the nautical blue-and-white palette; there’s the option of al fresco dining on the harbor terrace. And on Friday nights during the summer, there are movies playing on an outdoor screen, visible (though inaudible) through the Grille’s enormous windows.

For a hotel restaurant, it’s surprisingly excellent food. Chef Daniel Bruce (who also oversees Meritage and hotel events) has assembled simple dishes that deftly enhance the seafood’s flavors, rather than overdressing them with heavy spices or too-thick sauces. The Jonah crab salad ($16.50), for example, pairs sweet crabmeat with tangy crème fraîche; microgreens and a nest of crispy fried shallots on top provide subtle crunch.

The entrees don’t slouch, either. A meaty grilled monkfish “osso buco” (a $28 hunk of bone-in fish) is served in a pool of light bouillabaisse, with crispy fennel crostini to soak up the aromatic broth. Caramelized sea scallops ($28) are expertly seared, topped with fresh peapods and greens over a creamy sauvignon-blanc based sauce. There’s plenty on offer for landlubbers, too, but the seafood’s so solid, you’d better hate fish to justify going for the lamb or steak.

As good as it is, though, it’s hard to see the Sea Grille as a destination eatery—possibly because the BHH itself doesn’t appear to see it that way. On our recent visit, the service verged on apathetic, from the water glasses that sat empty to a 20-minute wait for a simple plate of Island Creek oysters. Then, post-meal, when met with a $27 tab for an hour and a half of valet parking—approximately the cost of an entrée—we asked whether validation was offered for restaurant patrons. “Where’d you eat?” asked the valet, and we told him. “Sorry, not for the Sea Grille,” came the reply. (Ouch.)

In other words, it’s not the BHH’s best work, nor is it intended to be. We’d go back for the fish, but for service and scene, Meritage still rules the roost.

Rowes Wharf Sea Grille, Boston Harbor Hotel, 70 Rowes Wharf, Boston, 617-856-7744,