Island Creek Oyster Bar
500 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA 02215 (map); 617-532-5300; islandcreekoysterbar.com
Service: Exceptional. Knowledgeable, friendly, professional.
Compare to: Eastern Standard, B&G Oysters Must-Haves: Lobster Roll, Mussels with Toasted Almond Cream
Cost: Oysters $2 to $3.50, Appetizers $10 to $15, Entrees $15 to $33
After his time working with Barbara Lynch at No.9 Park and B&G Oysters, Proprietor Garrett Harker set new standards for hospitality and casual dining in the Boston dining scene with Eastern Standard, his flagship restaurants in the heart of Kenmore Square. With Island Creek Oyster Bar, just a few doors down, he's managed to pull it off again.
This time he's enlisted the help of partner Skip Bennet, somewhat of a local legend for his role in revitalizing the cultured oyster industry. His plump, briny Island Creek oysters farmed in Duxbury just outside of Boston can be found in restaurants from New England to New York to Hong Kong. Apparently they've been deemed good enough to build a restaurant concept around. Add to that chef Jeremy Sewall of Lineage, former Craigie On Main bar manager Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli (now acting as General Manager), and Jackson Cannon of Eastern Standard, and you've just put together perhaps the best hospitality team Boston's seen to date.
For several years the space housed the ultra-trendy Great Bay. Of course, the problem with being ultra-trendy is that your interior begins to look tired very quickly, and the old space coupled with the too-cool-for-school lounge-y atmosphere was frankly annoying. The total interior renovation is more than just an improvement—it's an entirely re-invented space. Open, airy, and brightly lit, the main design features are the large clapboard sliding baffles that shade the enormous windows. Along with the blue-gray sun-bleached color of the wooden tables, they clearly evoke the dune-houses of the Cape and the islands.
The center of the restaurant is dominated by the oyster bar, which features a rotating selection of at least a dozen varieties from both coasts. Those produced and distributed by Island Creek oysters (including the original Island Creeks from Duxbury and thick-shelled briny versions from Wellfleet) are $2 a pop, and amongst the meatiest on offer. You'll also find jewel-like Kumamotos and Hama Hamas from the West Coast (creamy, with a metallic overtone), as well as something I've never seen before: wild Belons from Maine.
Apparently several years ago there were unsuccessful attempts made to farm the European variety off the coast of Maine. Years later, a wild population of Belons has been found and are now being harvested and sold for the first time this season. Like the European original, they have a distinct fishy, copper-like flavor which can be delicious to some and off-putting to others.
The simplest of the cooked shellfish dishes are also well constructed. Simply steamed Littleneck clams ($14) are sweet, slightly bitter (in that clammy way), and brothy; about as simple and delicious as fresh New England clams can get. The No-Shell PEI Mussels ($11) are even better. Tapioca-like pearls of Israeli couscous swim in a buttery broth faintly scented with almond and basil and thick with tender mussel bodies. It reminds me a lot of Thomas Keller's signature butter-poached oyster and tapioca dish ("Oysters and Pearls"), though here you get more than one bite—that's a good thing.
Island Creek Oyster bar is proud of its bread program, and the miniature brioche buns that come with the Oyster Sliders ($4 each) are indeed fantastic, to the point that they distract from the oyster itself, which is tough to taste through the bread and the thick panko coating. More oysters per sandwich and a creamy element from a smear of aioli or tartar sauce would have been welcome.
The bread is a much better home for the excellent Lobster Roll ($19). Baked int he classic New England style (split on the top so the sides can be toasted in butter), it's one of the few times I've preferred a homemade roll to the Pepperidge Farm classic. Lobster rolls are never cheap, but at Island Creek, you get a lot of well-cooked meat for your buck. Bits of tangy pickle mixed in with the lobster are a nice touch.
Their work with the fryer is a little more hit and miss. Whole-belly Fried Clams ($15) from the South Shore are a faultless take on the classic. Crunchy, grease free, and tender, I only wish there were a few more per order (you get about a dozen). The Fish & Chips ($14), on the other hand, were a little greasy with fish that bordered on mushy. It's a shame, because the malt-vinegar aioli is great
Shrimp with Sweet Potato Hash ($11) also has the foundations for a great dish and boasts impeccable flavor, but falls just short in execution with slightly overcooked shrimp.
The surprise favorite of the meal was in fact dessert. A perfectly tender, crisp, light, and moist Apple Cider Doughnut fried to order.
Island Creek Oyster Bar's got a few kinks to work out in the kitchen, but good service can cover a multitude of sins, and at that, you'll be hard pressed to find a more professional but friendly, courteous and attentive, and above-all knowledgeable staff anywhere. The space has got a casual energy to it that you see in few other restaurants. Danny Meyer's Gramercy Tavern or perhaps Mario Batali's Babbo in New York come to mind, but Island Creek Oyster Bar is more inexpensive than the first and far more casual than the second. Neither of those are bad things.