The first oyster trip of the year: Boston. This town has one heck of an oyster scene! But with just six hours to spare, I managed to only visit the top four on my list. Here are the findings from my short, yet fruitful trip.
12:30PM at Row34
After spending a relaxing weekend catching up with old college buddies, it was time to switch gears. Kahren Dowcett from Living Arts Institute and I drove down to Row34 (a new restaurant in Fort Point from the Island Creek crew) for a light oyster lunch. It was drizzly and cold, but we fortunately found street parking a block away.
Despite being self-described as a “workingman’s oyster bar,” Row34 was unexpectedly bright and polished. I guess I had imagined a smaller, darker oyster saloon instead of an open, industrial loft fit for a tech startup. But playing true to the no-nonsense descriptor, the usual sea-themed frivolities were no where to be seen. Only essential information were on display. Nothing more, nothing less. I liked that.
Darren served us at the bar, just to the right of the mountainous display of oysters over crushed ice. The restaurant was rather mellow today for lunch. Apparently ICO had their holiday party here last night. There were no traces of debauchery anywhere, but I suspect a few were probably recovering from festivities. The simple “R34″ raw bar ordering card listed a selection of five local oysters, all harvested from Massachusetts. Three were brand new to me. All of the oysters were priced between $2-3 per piece, so we sampled the lot: Row34 from Duxbury, Island Creeks from Duxbury, Howlands Landing from Duxbury, Rocky Nook from Kingston, and Spring Creek from Barnstable.
When our plate of 20 arrived, they glistened. Superbly fresh, all very meaty, immaculately shucked. Accoutrements included cocktail sauce with a side of horseradish (passed), classic mignonette (passed), and a special spicy mignonette (tried once, didn’t quite do it for me.)
The Row 34 Oyster Experiment: Row 34 got their name from their location. They’re grown on the 34th row of the Island Creek Oyster Farm plot, right next to its other acreages of brothers and sisters. However, unlike standard ICO’s that mature on the Duxbury Bay floor, Row 34 oysters are grown out in floating cages. Penthouse suites. They’re occasionally tumbled and tousled, but generally live a pampered life. Did this treatment impact its taste or texture? According to Boston Magazine, it certainly did.
Having tried both Row34’s and regular Island Creek’s consecutively, I thought I detected subtle differences. The liquor from the Row 34’s tasted a bit cleaner, yet brinier. Whereas the Island Creek’s possessed a depth that I often find in bottom-cultured oysters. But then again, I’m not positive whether or not it was an apples-to-apples comparison. One could have been pulled from the water at a different time, a different age.
I can’t wait to talk about the other oysters that I had, but I’m going to save it for another post where I plan to round up my full list of Boston oyster discoveries. I will say that I enjoyed the Duxbury trio flight. It was fascinating to compare and contrast oysters that were all grown in one microregion. We also had a few other bites before we had to go, including the Spicy Lobster Taco’s (great lobster and “salsa,” but not very spicy), and a delicious plate of lime-sprinkled salmon crudo (compliments of the chef). Overall, I had a terrific first experience at Row34. The service was wonderful, timing was perfect, oysters were well shucked, plated, and clearly explained. I’m definitely returning for another round and hope to also check out the original Island Creek Oyster Bar as well.
2:00PM at B&G Oysters
The next stop was B&G Oysters in the South End. We had amazing parking karma again. A spot opened up right in front of the restaurant. (Seriously, is this normal?) We entered through the back door, past the iron gate with the charming “Bivalves” sign. The rain had stopped and everything seemed to feel right.
Before entering the main restaurant, I caught a glimpse of the outdoor seating area. The small courtyard was flanked on one side by a wall of ivy. I imagined myself having a lazy and luxurious summer night out there with a plate of bivalves and a chilled glass of Sauvignon Blanc. The inside of B&G is quite charming. The open kitchen was at the center of everything. There were no barriers between the customer and the prep counters. It felt like being in the front row of Kitchen Stadium in Iron Chef, except without the camera crew, competitive heat or annoying voice timer.
When 2:30PM rolled around, we were the only patrons left in the restaurant. Nothing was going on except carrot prep and clean up. Our waiter walked over to take our order. I selected half a dozen oysters from a menu that featured 10 East Coast varieties. There were three from Massachusetts — two of which I hadn’t tried before. Oysters were priced between $2.50 to $4.10 per piece ($4.10 for the Basket Island, Maine). Chilmark from Martha’s Vineyard and Nasketucket from Nasketucket Bay were my two MA choices. I also decided to retry the Umami from Rhode Island just for the hell of it. I also ordered the Lobster Veloute, which looked absolutely divine.
Annnnd that’s all that I’m going to report for now.
Wait, what? Why? To be fully transparent, my experience wasn’t great. Several things were off. But it felt surprisingly off — like someone was accidentally dozing, instead of obstinately bombing. Because I had heard so many good things from so many people about B&G, I felt like my situation was out of the norm. Anyway, before jumping to any conclusions, I really want to give B&G another shot. So this report is TO BE CONTINUED…. duhn duhn DUHN. Onwards.
3:30PM at Neptune Oyster
Neptune Oyster in the historic North End is notorious for its ridiculously long wait times — yes, it’s that tiny and has a reputation of being that awesome — so I strategically scheduled this visit during the least busy time of day that I could think of. My plan worked. The narrow New York City-sized oyster boutique accommodated us four gals quite easily at the back of the bar. Connie Lu from Pangea Shellfish and my college buddy Kacy came out to meet us. Although if it were just me, I would’ve chosen to sit at the front of the restaurant, facing the giant window looking out onto the hypothetical line of envious patrons-in-waiting.
Neptune featured 12 oysters on their menu, with 10 from the East Coast and two from the West Coast, priced between $2.60 to $3.10 per piece ($3.10 for the Kusshi from British Columbia). As a contrast to Row 34 and B&G, the raw menu/ordering sheet at Neptune felt quite exhaustive. Each variety came with a description that summarized the oyster’s general size, level of salinity, notable flavors, and finish. Somebody likes spreadsheets! I ordered Moon Shoals from Barnstable, Basket Island from Casco Bay, and Bee’s River from Eastham.
Even though I wasn’t all that hungry, I had to try the Neptunes on Piggyback: a composition of crispy fried oysters between a base layer of sweet Berkshire pork and top layer of greens with a golden raisin confiture and pistachio aioli. The small plate was both hearty and light at the same time. Quite the delight. The service was a little inconsistent throughout the visit. We were initially well looked after when the place was calm, but attention dwindled near the end when the entire restaurant filled up (as anticipated). I suppose that’s a normal occurrence, so be prepared to wave the waiters down instead of waiting for them to come to you. I’d love to return sometime either on my own or on a date.
5:00PM at Mare Oyster Bar
Kacy and I ventured on to the last oyster bar. Mare was about three blocks away from Neptune and used a very similar raw bar ordering card. The ambiance was quite different from all the rest. Floor to ceiling windows hugged half of the corner bistro, which I’m sure brought in amazing light during the day. Fellow oyster enthusiast and creator of the Oyster Century Club Jacqueline Church also came out to meet us for my last round of slurps. At this point, I was a little bit, tiny bit, teensy bit oystered out. My wallet couldn’t have agreed with me more. However, with 15 oyster varieties on Mare’s menu, they boasted the largest selection out of the four establishments on my tour. They carried all East Coast varieties and many were brand new to me. My stomach rallied.
I scanned the list for viable options. We ordered a platter of Stony Islands from Orleans, First Encounters from Eastham, and Ichabods from Plymouth.
First Encounter vs First Light: Although First Encounter Oysters, presumably grown near the First Encounter Marsh at Bee’s River in Eastham aren’t at all the same as the First Light Oysters grown by the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Popponesset Bay, Mare kind of confused me by putting up a different label up than what was listed on the menu. From my understanding, they’ve served First Lights before, so either the sign was wrong or the menu was wrong. I wish I had a better comparison of the Bee’s Rivers from Neptune and these First Encounters.
I couple drinks and many laughs later, we noticed the time. I had to run soon to catch my ride back to New York City. I thought it wise to order something for the road. The Lobster Roll that boasted meat from a 2.5lb lobster for $25 looked sufficiently extravagant for a “on the go” meal. Mare offered both hot and cold preparation. I opted for the cold — Maine style. It was the Best. Decision. Ever. A few hours into my journey home, I decided it was time for a 5th meal. That lobster roll was phenomenal. The buttered bun was stuffed to the brim with lusciously sweet meat and garnished with tangy pickled onion slivers. If not for the great oysters, I would be happy to return to Mare for this puppy.
Tips for Your Own Boston Oyster Bar Crawl
– Start with a light oyster lunch. Make sure to fill your stomach with a little something besides oysters, but remember to pace yourself. Don’t fill up. Drink lots of water. Take a small break after eating to explore the city, and return to location #2 around 3PM.
– Take photos of all the menus (or ask to keep them, if possible) and make note of which oysters you try. Order them by harvest location. If you happen to find oysters from the same microregion (i.e., Wellfleet, Eastham, Duxbury), you’ll be able to compare those flavors more easily.
– Sit at the oyster bar wherever possible. Engage the staff, talk to them about the oysters. They should be plenty knowledgeable about their offerings and willing to help (as long as it’s not insanely busy where you can’t expect anyone to linger for long). If they don’t seem informed or try to hunt down the information for you, think twice about returning.
– 3PM on a weekday (particularly Monday) is going to be your best bet of getting a seat at Neptune without waiting.
– Take photos of your plate of oysters before you slurp them. They’ll usually come in order of how they’re listed on the menu. Sometimes when you can’t recall a name, you’ll at least remember its position on the platter.
I’ll be posting another entry about the new oyster discoveries that I had along the way. I’m also coming back for more in mid-March (and attending the Boston Seafood Expo).