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Big Apple/Beantown Dispatch 2: Neptune Oyster in a class, in a post, in my heart by itself

Straight from Boston’s South Station to Haymarket & on into me olde stomping grounds, the North End, the Director & I, luggage in tow, reached the Neptune Oyster entrance at 11:30 am sharp, just as owner Jeff Nace was opening the door. He gave me a hug. The staff proffered hearty hellos. Our server welcomed us back


at the bar

with flutes of prosecco. We were home.

And home was better than ever.

Last summer, upon our very first return to my all-time favorite restaurant since both I had left for Denver & the original chef, David Nevins, had left for Norwalk & Osetra Sono, I felt the oh-so-slightest of letdowns—if the magic wasn’t gone with new chef Nate Nagy, it would never again, I feared, be quite so blinding, grinding, hot-spellbinding.

I feared wrong. Following closely in Nevins’ madcap footsteps, Nagy has nonetheless clearly hit his own stride. The proof, first & foremost, was in the pudding of pan-roasted Island Creek oysters,


a gorgeous glimpse of which got me so spasmodically jazzed I accidentally dipped my sleeve in the center shell before taking this pic. Then I deliberately dipped my face in the plate & shook it, you know, like a bachelor bashgoer at a stripper’s bosom.

Per Rowan Jacobsen’s handy-dandy Oyster Guide, Island Creeks are “salty as all get-out,” as well as firm, clean & buttery. Hear, hear to the latter trio, although these particular babies didn’t strike me as the former—& all the better for that, given that they sat atop dollops of house-deviled ham, which could have been overkill. Instead the combo was electrifying & soothing by turns as the flavor of what was called cucumber crème fraîche, but seemed to be paprika-spiked crème fraîche with squirts of cuke smoothie all round, percolated through. Truly a dish for the ages, along with Neptune’s other forever-&-a-day-worthy contributions to the canon: pickled beef tongue & fried oysters piled high with gruyère, sauerkraut & Russian dressing; short rib carpaccio piled higher with fried onion on a bed of garlic mayo–drizzled mâche; braised baby octopus over black polenta with slow-roasted tomatoes…

You see, for me, this tiny place inheres in reverie—sometimes, granted, as romantic as it is culinary (as an old Chowhound thread still embarrassingly reveals); the Director & I have spent countless hours there doing just what we did on this visit—reveling in each other’s boozy company & marveling at most every bite. Something about the misty aura—the etched glass & chalked-on mirrors, the marble & subway tiles, the embossed tin & ice-covered raw bar—invites rapt contemplation as much as the scattering of little gems like this yellowtail tartare with a salad of baby greens & sunchoke chips as well as daubs of ginger-pear vinaigrette—lovely accompaniments all, but then that hamachi could have come covered in mud & still sparkled through.


Would you believe this open-faced sardine sandwich was light?


Well, okay, me neither. Not quite. But Nagy & crew (of 1 or 2 at most) certainly handled it more elegantly than most kitchens would or could, frying a fresh, hence just this side of mild, filet to a delicate gold, layering it along with a mound of frisée & a sunny-side-up egg onto a toasted slice of brioche & spooning round a maple-bacon vinaigrette that actually was a subtly flavored dressing, not a viscous mix of syrup & drippings.

Of course, we couldn’t leave before we’d sopped up Neptune’s superb, pickle-heavy tartar sauce with a few fried clams.


Of course, we could hardly leave, period. Wistful backwards glance, bittersweet belly rub.

Neptune Oyster on Urbanspoon

Dispatch from Iowa City: Gorgeous George’s Buffet

It’s a classic boy-meets-girl story, the Director’s & mine. Except the part where boy meets girl, since he doesn’t really remember it. & the part where boy loses girl, since he was in love with someone else at the time & didn’t so much pursue me in the 1st place as, okay, startle & flee from my pursuit. But the part about finding me again, that actually did happen, some 11 years after his old pal Joe Franklin—whom I’d been casually dating mainly because he looked cute in shirtless overalls & workboots he’d spraypainted pink—introduced us over a round of pool at The Foxhead in Iowa City.

While The Foxhead is long & literally storied as the all-but-official HQ for generations of students at the Writers’ Workshop such as yours truly (however arguably by fluke), its place in my heart has far more to do with the chance at true romance it ultimately yielded than with any treasured memory of the 100s of hours I spent there knocking back brave bulls & partaking in passionate debates about poetry, a) b/c I was knocking back brave bulls, which have a way of knocking you back in turn & trampling every memory in their digestive path & b) b/c deep down, if purely as a matter of aesthetics, I preferred George’s Buffet down the block.


As close to a townie hangout as an off-campus bar in an all-campus burg gets, George’s was darker & quieter & richer in trimmings: strung colored lights,


vintage Hamm’s signage,

a letterboard menu listing (among very few other things) burgers as greasy & grimy as those old gopher guts of song & wallpaper straight out of a Victorian rooming house.


But the best part of it all was yet to be—& that’s that, 13 years hence, it still is. Nothing had changed upon a recent visit. Even the cheerily weary bartender was the same if I squinted.

So I slid into 1 of the scraped wooden booths as I did with people I used to know so long ago. & I ordered, as I did so long ago,


a bloody mary & mixed nuts


from the heated dispenser behind the bar,

& I proceeded, as I had so many times before, to pour my heart out about the man I was falling hard for.

Only this time, the Director was right there to hear it, to respond. This time, he loves me back. This time, our story ends happily ever after.

Were we to submit it to the Workshop, it’d be ripped apart for its far-fetched smarm.

KO KO: Bissonnette knocks us out (Boston)

Hitting KO Prime for the first time in a year, I came, I suspect, as close as I’ll ever come to celebrating the Saturnalia without actually traveling back in time to inhabit the body of a Roman slave, packing a week of howling, chest-pounding debauchery into an evening (that, granted, began around noon with lunch & cocktails at dante, continued with more cocktails at UpStairs on the Square & still more cocktails plus apps at Hungry Mother, & ended with a nightcap or two at No. 9 Park). As promised here—where the pics below of chef Jamie Bissonnette’s signature bone marrow & surely-soon-to-be-signature calves’ brains piperade (essentially a Basquaise sofrito, heavy on the peppers) 1st appeared—what follows is a montage that, I imagine, speaks for itself, albeit in a slur devolving into a series of grunts.


ceviche amuse


house-cured Bayonne ham, jamón ibérico & Cape Fear country ham with pickled lily stems & truffled aioli


marrow strewn with pickled shallots over oxtail marmalade


pan-roasted sea bass over heirloom corn relish


heirloom tomato salad with crottin (an aged goat cheese from Vermont) & a brushstroke of avocado


delicious, creamy-as-pudding BRAINS sprinkled with fried capers


Kobe flatiron with grilled onions & romesco, professedly, though I remain confused by the profession; although almonds and stale bread are key in traditional recipes for the Spanish sauce, so are red peppers—sweet & dried chile—& tomato, & the color of the final product generally reflects as much.


lobster bisque with a touch of sauternes


absolutely no recollection. cocoa-dusted cheesecake? semifreddo? with mint coulis?


essentially a blueberry muffin top with chocolate gelato shaped like a daisy-sprouting egg. How adorably like the whole thing was transported in a time machine made out of a vinyl beanbag from the patchwork-filled kitchen of a free-love commune circa 1972 & not at all like something you could order in a postmillennial steakhouse & lounge is that? The sauce should spell out “war is not healthy for children & other living things.”

Topping the roster: Neptune Oyster (Boston)

Melancholy descended before we did. Though Denver is not yet my home, one glimpse of the skyline from the plane window confirmed that Boston no longer can be.

Not that melancholy isn’t its own form of joy. Especially under the spectacular circumstances: the Director & I shot straight from Logan into Chinatown & The Best Little Restaurant, where we caught the tail end of a raucous party of dear old friends from, who plied us with leftovers—unbelieveable fried squab (is a pigeon just 1 big liver? Something of that rich iron savor seems to suffuse every inch of its flesh), eaten with squeezes of lemon & sprinkles of salt & pepper from a finger bowl; braised duck; deep-fried garlic spare ribs—& whom we plied in turn with booze until the movements of at least 1 of us began to resemble those of some sort of cross between a squid & a corpse. & I’m relieved to say for once it wasn’t me. As far as I recall.

From there we hit the poshest sack I ever did hit: the apartment of 1 said hound, whose terrace affords (definitely the right word for it) a nonpareil view of much of Boston proper & its landmarks—the Pru & the Citgo sign beyond the Common to the west, the capitol dome & the brownstones of Beacon Hill to the north—



while the couch afforded an even more stunning view of Sam, landmark of his own domain, totally as wide as he is tall:


Next morning, after coffee on his freakin’ great yacht, moored at Commercial Wharf on the harbor, the same hound showed us his lobster traps


which were however filled with crabs, apparently too small for good eating, so he stabs them with a nail & makes bait of them. This one made a break for it to no avail. Hypocrite that I am as an insatiable carnivore, I couldn’t watch but I think the Director couldn’t not.


& then it was time to meet yumyum for lunch at the eatery that I will forever hold dear above all others: Neptune Oyster.

The moment I crossed the threshold of Jeff Nace’s wee seafooder in the North End 3 years ago, all of a block & a half from my then-apartment, I knew it would be my place—clean & well-lighted indeed, from the pressed-tin ceilings & the subway tiles to the etched glass & the mirrors lettered with the names of the oysters of the day—



which are also listed, complete with the most charmingly precise tasting notes (Katama Bay, MA: “briny, buttered popcorn finish”; Kumamoto, WA: “plump, creamy, hints of cucumber”) on the slips of paper on which they record your order—& the Director & I record our memories of each visit:

Photo 20

What I didn’t yet know is that my place, low-key & laidback as it appeared, would introduce to me a chef whose culinary style was so startlingly bold & intelligent as well as just plain fun as to be, I dare say, absolutely original in a field where most so-called creations are really just reactions, variations. David Nevins has made many of the best dishes I’ve had in my life: a salad of salt cod & crispy lamb with parsnip puree; smoked salmon mousse with roe, kiwano melon & horseradish croutons; above all those unforgettable fried oysters with pickled beef tongue, gruyère, sauerkraut & Russian dressing—which, for me, truly expanded the horizon of a single plate—& on & on.

4 of the last 5 meals I had before moving to Denver were at Neptune; so genuinely broken up was I about saying goodbye that it wasn’t until I heard Nevins had left to open his own place—Osetra in Norwalk, CT—that I could genuinely say I’d done the right thing by moving halfway across the country to be with the love of my life. Sure, the Director’s my soulmate, but Nevins was my soulchef.

I trusted, however, Nace’s savvy, & imagined he’d hire someone who’d follow in Nevins’ footsteps—however wildly, wonderfully all over the place they may be.

& so he has, though I can’t say from 1 meal this Nate Nagy fellow is quite Nevins’ equal.


On the flavor spectrum, the Director’s pan-seared bass with succotash & a mussel vinaigrette (they were out of the razor clams they usually use) ranged from bright to brighter.


Octopus salad with fennel, green apple & citrus sparkled too; still, I couldn’t help but dream of how Nevins’ version might have looked (especially given that the menu at his new place boasts a braise of octopus with chicken, of all things. Another dish combines caviar & bone marrow. The mind boggles).


Cornmeal-crusted fried trout & crab hush puppies with blueberry brown butter & parsnip puree was the most like it, veering from sweet to salty & back again.

As always, we were treated with tender care by servers highly seasoned for their youth; complimentary welcome-back glasses of brachetto d’acqui ended the meal, & we knew they wouldn’t be the last. Neptune will always be my first Boston stop, if never again my home away from home.