Restaurant Review: The Banks Fish House Might Need a Stronger Hook
In a city awash with seafood, is this Back Bay newcomer distinctive enough to bait us back?
The photographs on the website and the walls of the Banks Fish House—salt-bleached boats, dark islands, fishermen proud and weather-worn—wordlessly signal home to many folks who live and work on New England’s coast. As I hunker down in a corner booth for my first dinner out in Boston in months, they remind me of the sailors, fishers, and lobstermen in my own family who can tell the temperature of the water by the way the wind is blowing. “Saltiness is next to godliness” proclaims the cream-colored menu printed on thick, sturdy cardstock, and this exaltation of deep-sea hardiness to grand, divine stature would seem, at least at first, to offer a good lens for viewing the Banks Fish House, which opened in July 2021: It appears to be an ode to the coastal Northeast fishing community in stylish Back Bay trappings. As it turns out, the place does excel in many arenas, namely the kind that opulent ocean liners are known for: hospitality, design, comfort. In others, though, it lacks a little seasoning—some element, beyond a single clever quip, that clearly conveys a distinct perspective through food and drink. Himmel Hospitality Group, which owns the Banks Fish House, is behind some of the city’s more iconic local restaurants—Grill 23, Harvest, Bistro du Midi—and, excitingly, their latest eatery is their first seafood-focused venture. But you can toss a cod and hit a seafood restaurant in Boston. What sets this one apart?
The place certainly looks lovely. Where “fish house” typically calls to mind humble clapboard quarters, the Banks simply gleams. Towering ceilings and tall windows allow natural light to spill over an inviting color palette of browns, blues, and grays that evokes the insides of oyster shells and moody ocean skies. Nautical light fixtures illumine two floors of seating in high-backed leather chairs, and while the ambiance is formal enough to keep the music soft and subtle in the dining room, it is also fun enough to bump Kaytranada songs in the bathroom.
Ever-present in the space is Himmel’s experience-honed hospitality. It is of the warm, elegant ilk: Servers are unobtrusively supportive when you’re engrossed in conversation with dining mates, and still highly alert to eye contact when you wish to order oysters served on thrones of crushed ice, a glass of a briny, coastal white wine, or a well-made cocktail. On one late-summer visit, for instance, the Beach Rose Fizz ($13)—beach rose and cardamom-gin cordial with lime, egg white, and soda—went down as enjoyably as a beach read, as did the restaurant’s herbaceous white sangria ($13). On the other hand, while I’m excited by the thoughtfulness increasingly dedicated to nonalcoholic drinks in Boston, here the Cherry Lime Tonic ($7) with rainier cherry and peppercorn shrub was distractingly vinegary and overly sweet when I opted for a lunchtime mocktail.
Speaking of distractions: Food-wise, the menu feels unfocused as it aims to please everyone—a recipe, usually, for leaving everyone a little wanting. It covers pricey cuts of meat and seafood-topped flatbreads (with the option to add caviar). At a single moment, there might be newspaper-lined fried-seafood baskets, humble po’ boys, and a short-rib burger with jalapeño jack cheese. There is also salmon crudo with yuzu kosho vinaigrette, crispy fish tacos with kimchi slaw, and cuttlefish spaghetti with uni and mussels. It all clearly comes from a place of affection: Restaurateur Chris Himmel grew up fishing for tuna off the coast of Cape Ann, while chef Robert Sisca has plied his passion for seafood at Bistro du Midi and Garde East on the Vineyard. The desire to do it all, though, yields a scattershot selection. That Sisca can maneuver hard-a-port—then hard-a-starboard, then hard-a-port again—on a dime is quite a feat. It also makes it hard to tell where the Banks is going.
While the identity of the restaurant seems rather unsettled, Sisca cooks with confidence and conviction. A luxurious salmon ($38), for one, really hit the mark with its crackling skin shellacked over velvety meat, which intermingled with sliced pork belly, melted Swiss chard, and a satiny carbonara sauce. The Banks lobster bake (market) was a showstopper the moment it landed on the table in a double-handled crock brimming with tiny potatoes, corn, yawning clams, and lobster, the tail split and dressed in herb butter, the head and body peering over the rest of the dish. And unsurprisingly, given that Grill 23 is one of the most laureled steakhouses in Boston, the filet with béarnaise ($55), a generous cut with juicy, rubied insides, was an elegant paragon of a proper chop. The sides aren’t an afterthought, either: Golden dinner rolls ($6), flecked with salt and perfumed with butter, were among the highlights of each meal, as was the cast-iron jalapeño cornbread ($6) with its deeply browned edges.
Other dishes on the menu don’t pull their weight. The Little Gems Caesar ($14) lacked the umami-packed depth you’d want from the iconic salad, and a fried Fisherman’s Platter ($42) was without the bright saltiness and symphonic crackle found in the Boston area’s litany of fried seafood haunts. The cuttlefish spaghetti ($27), an inky, buttery tangle strewn with mussels and draped with uni, meanwhile, needed a note of acid to slice through the rich urchin brine. And although the Chowda flatbread ($19)—a clam-, bacon-, and crème fraîche–topped white pizza finished with a scatter of oyster crackers—was under-seasoned, the actual clam chowder ($9) was over-salted to the degree that a small mug went unfinished.
Desserts, when we get there, are joyful and gratifying—like returning home to solid ground after riding bumpy ocean waves. Pastry chef Alyx Abreu’s creations are unified by a sense of purpose: to take potentially rote classics (think crème brûlée or bananas foster) in celebratory directions. One night’s seasonal strawberry cheesecake ($15) is still rooted in my memory months later: Between the buttery lemon shortbread crust and the Basque-style burnished top were feather-light, rose-colored, custardy layers as gently sweet as summer itself. On another evening, Abreu’s flight of ice cream and sorbet ($12)—cold-brew coconut, mint–chocolate chip, mango ginger, wild berry—cast my table into blissed-out silence.
If only the Banks itself had a stronger voice. It is a perfectly good restaurant, but I’m still stumped as to who it is for. Out-of-towners looking for lobster rolls? Suits seeking a lunch spot? Hungry friends who are all on very different pages? Fine food alone doesn’t lodge a restaurant in a diner’s mind. There needs to be a through line, personality-wise, that is tangible and taste-able. This is what causes someone to recall a restaurant when they ask themselves, “Of all the spots in town, where should I eat tonight?” The Banks may end up finding where it fits in Boston’s seafood scene. Right now, though, I think it’s still wondering where to drop anchor.
406 Stuart St., Boston, 617-399-0015, thebanksboston.com.
Faroe Island salmon ($38), Banks lobster bake (market), Seasonal cheesecake ($15), Dinner rolls ($6)
★★★★ Extraordinary | ★★★ Generally Excellent | ★★ Good | ★ Fair | (No Stars) Poor