A Healthy Appetite is a restaurant review column for the fun-loving, nutrition-minded gormand.
by Caroline Carney
Island Creek Oyster Bar
500 Commonwealth Ave. Boston, MA 02215
Phone: 617 532 5300
Type of Food: Seafood
Price Range: $ $ $
Oysters tend to be divisive. You either love ‘em or hate ‘em. But few would deny the beauty of this bivalve: it works its whole life to filter our waters, it offers up a rich source of lean protein and zinc all packaged in a pearly grey shell, and it has always been a part of New England cooking. These salty, succulent treats (it’s no secret what side I’m on) are the stars of the show at Kenmore Square’s recently opened Island Creek Oyster Bar (ICOB). Farmed just outside of Boston in Duxbury, chefs prize these oysters for their briny flavor and meaty texture. The owner of Island Creek Oysters has teamed up with a top Boston chef to open a restaurant where oysters get the attention they deserve. Because the ICOB opened so recently, I made a pair of trips two weeks apart to see how the staff and the menu progressed.
The Scene: Walking into ICOB, I was struck by the “oysteresque” décor. Each wall has its own personality. An enormous wall-sized photograph was inscrutable at first, but on close-up inspection, it was an upside down photograph of the Island Creek farm in action. Brilliant. The interior design team continued to impress. Along the back wall, piled neatly from floor to ceiling, stand thousands of oyster shells held in place by subtle steel cages. This massive oyster display is lit from below creating a surreal scene of shadowy shapes.
The crowd is eclectic: an intimate business dinner, a group of friends nestled in a booth celebrating a birthday, a young couple clinking wine glasses, a small family enjoying a nice meal out.
Menu: The menu is a folded up piece of paper with one side stamped with the date – a comforting indication they change the menu daily, basing their offerings on what is freshest that morning. Because ICOB is first and foremost a raw bar, each oyster listing is accompanied by the geographic origin and even the farmer’s name. This makes ordering fun: “I’ll take a dozen of Tom’s Rocky Nook oysters from Kingston,” or “Send over some of those salty-sweet Hama Hamas from Adam in Liliwaup.” If you have any qualms about eating a raw mollusk, knowing the supplier’s name might make you feel more at ease.
On my first visit to ICOB, we ordered a dozen Island Creeks to get better acquainted with the restaurant’s namesake. The presentation was lovely with the glistening, plump oysters arranged in a circle and sitting in a raised silver platter. Sadly, they were not well-shucked, meaning in some cases, the poor little fellows still clung to their shells accompanied by fine, mangled shards of shell. But the clear, sweet, salty flavor with a buttery finish was superb. On my second visit, the table opted for a sampling of both Island Creeks and Kumamoto oysters from Bill in Puget Sound. The darling little Kumamotos, so sweet and fresh, easily slipped from their deep cups. But surprisingly, the Island Creeks were still poorly shucked. Maybe the inexperienced crew just can’t keep up.
Between my two visits we only had one appetizer—good thing it was a homerun. The dish, cod cheek cassoulet, arrived piping hot with fragrant steam swirling about. A standout dish, the cod cheeks were tender and the shell beans gave it some heft. But it was the tasso ham that gave the dish depth and a smoky, unforgettable body. If only the entrees could have met this high bar.
It always makes me suspicious when the waiter says, “Everything on the menu is great!” Sure enough, we found two dishes that weren’t– the Monkfish Schnitzel and the Columbia River Sturgeon. With each, at first bite it was clear that the kitchen had missed the mark: both fish were half-heartedly pan seared, both tasted exactly like each other, and – worst of all – both tasted like chicken. The monkfish had a rich caper brown butter sauce that was pitifully wasted on the tough fish. The sturgeon was also outshined by its far superior sauce: the oyster beurre blanc was light, creamy, with just the right hint of sea saltiness.
On my second visit I was incredibly pleased to see that the chef had removed both items. I ordered the Gulf of Maine halibut, which had a perfect golden-brown sear. Flat-leaf parsley lent a welcomed grassiness and black trumpet mushrooms were perfectly umami—neither overshadowed the delicate halibut. Also impressive was the prosciutto-wrapped monkfish. My friend described it as “fancy without being pretentious.” Another friend went with the lobster roe noodles, pale red tagliatelle. The noodles were tender and made for true comfort in a dish: warm grilled lobster, melt-in-your mouth braised short rib, salty pecorino cheese and creamy chanterelle mushrooms. Suffice it to say that this team knows what it’s doing and is rapidly working out the kinks.
The Bottom Like: ICOB is a great place to grab a drink, hit the raw bar, and try some local fish. Soak in the well-appointed surroundings. Definitely order some Island Creeks and hope the shucking improves. We are fortunate that such amazing bivalves are grown nearby.
$ Average entrée is $10, Highest price is <$18
$$ Average entrée is $15, Highest price is <$25
$$$ Average entrée is $20, Highest price is <$30
$$$$ Average entrée is $25, Highest price is <$40
$$$$$ Average entrée is $30, Highest price is whatever you can dream of
NOT: Pack a lunch
Beer or Wine List: