Restaurant Review: Select Oyster Bar
While eating my way through the menu at Select Oyster Bar, the new vest-pocket seafood spot just across from Hynes Convention Center, I was halfway tempted to stop taking notes—the dutiful running catalog of pluses and minuses I quietly tap into my phone during stealth trips to the men’s room.
This wasn’t because the food was flawless. (It wasn’t.) It was because Michael Serpa has sensibilities so in tune with what I hope to find in a chef that quibbling over a dull ingredient here, a misjudged (or absence of) spicing there seemed beside the point: Even when dishes didn’t quite come together, I knew the plate would still go back empty.
Serpa believes in the power of direct, clean flavors, and in giving seasonal vegetables and herbs—as in seasonal this week—equal prominence with the main part of the plate. But happily, he doesn’t treat freshness, lightness, and simplicity as an excuse for a lack of imagination or technical skill.
The crudos, in particular, are standouts, and should be among the first things you order, starting with the salmon ($14). (Once you get a seat, that is. There are barely more than 50, and coupled with the strict no-reservations policy for small parties, the wait on a busy night can be epic.) A thick, celery-colored pistachio oil formed a viscous sauce of its own, while tiny cube-shaped flakes of Japanese togarashi pepper, running like a clay-red stripe along the lush slices of raw, vividly colored fish—plucked at the peak of wild Pacific sockeye season—provided a welcome foil to the nuttiness of the sauce without fighting it.
Over the course of four visits, I ordered that salmon dish three times. I wanted more of it. It demonstrated, in a single dish, why Serpa’s emphasis on simplicity—and on giving equal billing to the day’s delivery of vegetables and herbs—is a sensibility to treasure. It’s also one I’ve seldom, if ever, seen applied to fish in Boston. Or, more accurately, not since Jasper White had Jasper’s Restaurant (long before Summer Shack). There he took a joyously freewheeling attitude toward the day’s catch, which was a lot harder to round up in those days and took playing vendors off one another. Serpa may have a ways to go before he matches White’s casual virtuosity. But the bright color and generosity of his plates make a telling contrast with the restrained luxury of fish at, say, Ostra or Grill 23.
Select’s direct inspirations are easy to trace. For seven years Serpa worked at Neptune Oyster, six and a half of them as executive chef. With Neptune, husband-and-wife owners Jeff and Kelli Nace created a new kind of oyster bar and fish house (hard by Union Oyster House and Legal Sea Foods), one year after Barbara Lynch and Garrett Harker reproduced the excitement and intimacy of a Seville tapas bar at B & G Oysters, in the South End. In its graphics, simple design, and prominence of the bar, Select (which Serpa owns and runs with his wife, Lina Velez) bears strong traces of both.
Given that the crudos show Serpa’s sensibility at its purest, you’ll want to take a $16 to $19 chance on the daily raw-fish special. More often than not the bet pays off, as in sliced scallops with Connecticut strawberries and sherry vinegar. The chance you take: No single component registered in a crudo of sea bream with grapefruit and cucumber, not even the too-faint acidity of the citrus.
The “starters” I tried had enough substance almost to make them main courses. Flash-seared hamachi ($19) improved on everybody else’s rendition by offering thicker chunks of yellowtail, and actually tasted better seared on one side than completely raw. I fell in love with one version I tried, featuring shredded cabbage, corn, and avocado. Plain head-on blue Ecuadorian prawns on the plancha ($17) not only withstood the spotlight, they shone: The espelette pepper, oil, and lemon somehow emulsified to create a sauce—as elegant as the pistachio oil that coated the salmon crudo—and you’ll want to, and should, eat every single bit, preferably with your fingers.
Because the portions are so generous, mains are expensive, and not all were hits. Bouillabaisse ($35) won’t go on your list of memorable fish stews, though there were large, plentiful chunks of fish and more of those prawns, this time meek. Pan-roasted lobster ($35) was notable more for the long and lazy shoots of roasted Vidalia spring onions draped over the meat than the meat itself (cooked in house, unlike the pallid and pricey “dressed lobster” starter for $29).
But some entrées were stunning, including two beautifully plated fish dishes: a special featuring moist, powerfully oily, crisp-skinned bluefish ($32) with a sensational “raw ratatouille” of lightly charred eggplant and roasted tomato freshened with uncooked diced zucchini and summer squash, shaved fennel, and plenty of basil; and salmon-colored arctic char ($26) set off by slightly blackened roasted cantaloupe slices, crumbled feta, diced cucumber marinated in rice-wine vinegar, and heart-shaped leaves of red-veined sorrel that made the entire plate look like a late-Matisse cutout. I suspect I’ll measure other fish dishes against the vibrant flavors and colors Serpa sends out for a long time to come.
And that’s it: no desserts, another page from the Neptune playbook. Of course, the Back Bay isn’t the North End, and Serpa isn’t wholly convincing when he says that Barrington Coffee, around the corner, makes better espresso than he can. Or that he “sucks” at baking. Or that he’s primarily concerned with supporting local dessert businesses. (Pinkberry is no Modern Pastry, the last time I checked.) Rather, it feels a bit like an efficient way to keep tables turning—which for those standing there waiting is something to be grateful for. It also makes Select a fairly in-and-out transaction, as does the 20 percent gratuity that gets added to every check, regardless of party size: a policy I approve of in principle but that is sure to create some confusion.
These are small reservations about a place that doesn’t take them. For their part, Select’s new neighbors, the ones who don’t have to scramble for parking—who can put their names on the wait list, go finish a load of laundry, then waltz back in time for their table—should thank their lucky stars. For sophisticated seafood cookery on the block. For that breathtaking salmon crudo. But most of all, perhaps, for the fact that Select has accomplished, in just a few short months, something no other restaurant has mustered: making the Back Bay feel like a real neighborhood.
Salmon crudo • $14
Blue prawns a la plancha • $17
Flash-seared hamachi with sweet-corn salad • $19
Arctic char with roasted melon and feta • $26
Crispy bluefish with ratatouille • $32
50 Gloucester St., Boston, 857-239-8064, selectboston.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.