First Bite at Mare

A North End standard gets reinvented as an oyster bar. Let's hope the makeover continues.

mare restaurant

(Photo by Ekaterina Smirnova.)

Ever since Neptune Oyster opened in 2005, it’s had a lock on anyone craving raw bar in the North End. If you can’t score a table, you either wait an hour or give up and go for pasta or pizza instead.

The owners of nearby Mare surely noticed Neptune’s perennial popularity. And now they’ve rebranded their seafood-focused Italian restaurant as an oyster bar, adding bar seating and sprucing up the décor. The garish interior lighting was toned down, and an ice-covered display of oysters was brought in. And, as at Neptune, the day’s raw offerings are now written on a mirror above the bar.

Rebranded or not, a recent visit to Mare fell laughably short in one regard: service. We arrived to learn our booking had been mysteriously bumped up a half-hour, causing us to “miss” our reservation. After we informed the host that we’d received both e-mail and voicemail confirmations, he asked to listen to his own message — on our phone. (You can’t make this stuff up.)

Service picked up from there, and the sheepish host had us wait for a table at the bar, where a bartender walked us through the night’s oyster selections. First Lights, Belons, and Blue Points (market price), served with blood-orange mignonette, arrived icy cold and perfectly shucked; chilled lobster cocktail ($18, pictured) featured sweet, tender meat, a feather-light dressing, and plenty of bright chives.

Our seated dinner, however, was less impressive. New dishes have been added, but much of the old Mare menu remains. Seared halibut with asparagus, chanterelles, and lemon beurre blanc ($27) was lovely, but rubbery lobster with paccheri pasta ($24) was overwhelmed by an intense tomato sauce and salty artichokes. Wine pairings were also off; though our server’s recommendation of a Napa chardonnay for the halibut seemed odd, we took his advice and regretted it. For dessert, an unripe, fanned-out strawberry (is this 1995?) did no favors for a fig-and-chocolate bread pudding ($8), an otherwise satisfying plate. Is Mare better for its relaunch? Sure. But until they step up the service and details, Neptune has nothing to fear.

Mare, 135 Richmond St., Boston, 617-723-6273,