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Neptune Oyster: The Everlasting Shout-Out (UPDATED 7/2012)

***Adding on to my last post; the old one begins with the next trio of asterisks.

Neptune’s long been the clown car of North End eateries, but these days the emphasis is on “clown,” with goofballs galore spilling in & out merely to check the “Ben-Affleck-sat-here” box on their tourists’ to-do lists. The Director got hilariously livid watching one woman attempting to impress a date by choking down raw oysters with more cocktail sauce than there was meat.

But I can’t really gripe too much that our place has become everybody’s place—it’s as deserving as ever, from the extremely patient servers to the ultra-talented kitchen helmed by Michael Serpa. The fried clams are still up there among the best on either the South or North Shore;

the sandwich-mounted take on vitello tonnato—which replaces the tuna-mayo sauce of the original with tartare & spicy mustard cream—still a startling treat;

& the sweet nothings Serpa sends out for a poor old fanatic like me still fantastic—behold “eggs & eggs,” combining the creamiest, most precisely cooked omelet the Director & I have ever had with a dollop of caviar. (Chef, if you’re reading this, he’s too embarrassed to ask how you did it. Call me maybe?)

Of course, after a year-plus away from my favorite haunt in all this world, there was plenty on the menu that was new to me, albeit fitting the classic Neptune mold—veering from the wispiest delicacy to the funkiest concoction.

At the ethereal end of the spectrum, this bronzino crudo with lemon yogurt, parsley & gray sea salt was like eating the sighs of the lovelorn. Take that, sadsacks.

At the bold end, take this pair of appetizers:

On the left, perfectly tender calamari braised in a robust combo of tomatoes, broccoli rabe, green olives, and banana peppers; on the right, one of the highest, lightest highlights of 2 highlit meals: yellowfin tartare enriched with avocado & citrus aioli atop a slice of locally baked baguette. So much messy fun.

Also beautifully realized was an entree of seared scallops and duck confit atop crumbled blue cheese, caramelized brussels sprout leaves & a smear of pear butter. If that sounds over the top, you’re clearly a Neptune newbie—its great gift to gastronomy is remarkable balance among ingredients that shouldn’t work together but always do.

As a Buddhist, my mother likes to say that there is no such thing as home except in the here & now. I beg to differ. For me, Neptune Oyster is home.

 

***
Have I mentioned how I adore Neptune Oyster like no other restaurant on earth? Oh, I have? Well, it’s always worth reiterating. Over the course of 6 years, despite 2 kitchen shake-ups & the sort of explosive popularity that usually leads almost as soon as it begins to backlashes & downslides, owner Jeff Nace has kept his head & remained true to his vision of a seafood bar extraordinare—low-key & intimate in feel (no small thanks to loyal, smart, affable servers like Dan & Vinny), yet inimitably bold in its culinary approach (realized with aplomb by head chef MIchael Serpa & crew, busting their chops all day every day in a kitchen the size of a large couch).

That said, I’ve been lavishing praise on Neptune so often for so long—in print, in person, in-ternet—that there’s not much more I can possibly say. Just take it from an original regular: go in the off-hours between lunch & dinner; stay as long as you can; & eat & drink as much as you’re able. With the strongly recommended assistance of equally voracious, boozy & appreciative chums, following a round of oysters, your meal might go something like this:

crudo of bay scallop so firm yet so paradoxically tender as only scallops can be, pink & white as peaches & cream, you’d be forgiven for fantasizing you’re eating chunks of human baby;

brioche toast rubbed with pork fat, topped with white anchovies & slivers of air-dried tuna, then sprinkled with diced pineapple (such startling combos, which jar the brain but mesmerize the palate & raise the bar on contrasting flavor profiles, have always been the kitchen’s forté);

yellowfin tartare on a baguette slice spread with roast tomato jam & dunked into a pool of warm brandade—you know, the emulsion of salt cod with olive oil, milk or cream, & sometimes garlic that’s like the chocolate to fresh tuna’s peanut butter;

OMG johnnycake—aka a flapjack of cornmeal & buttermilk that’s griddled to a crisp (look at that symmetrically charred edge!) yet fluffy within, topped with a cylinder of smoked trout–honey butter—you read that right—in turn topped with a dollop of Little Pearl roe, which OMG softens & spreads over the surface to yield what’s basically a fishy dessert, OMG take that!;

Serpa’s signature dish, “Neptunes on piggyback”: fried oysters & pulled pork. With golden raisin jam & pistachio aioli. On toast. An edible roller coaster that starts on your tongue & ends in your belly;

a little something unexpected which by the time we got I was too muddled to get the full scoop on, but it was basically a layered patty of braised pork shank & smoked salmon spiked with “some sort of mustard dressing,” per Serpa via Twitter—he can’t quite remember either, which goes to show the value of becoming a regular (here or anywhere): you get to be a guinea pig (who sometimes even gets to eat guinea pig, but that’s another story, involving another area chef, that I was long ago sworn to secrecy on). The point is if I’d been presented the dish in a void, I’d have known it was Neptune’s, the pairing of meat & fish being its most obvious hallmark. If you want to get a clear sense of what the place is all about, dishes based on such pairings are a must;

Wellfleet littlenecks steamed in Vermentino, garlic & parsley—a few such simple, subtle, soothingly aromatic selections are always sprinkled among the more provocative concoctions, filling the bill when I’m not up for a blowout, which is never;

& a salad of grilled octopus with chorizo, green apple, shaved fennel, & mâche in citrus vinagirette of which I have no photo & almost no memory.

So I compensated for the oversight by returning 2 days later—straight from brunch at Coppa—for the Sunday special of fish tacos.

Sigh. Until next time, old friend.

Neptune Oyster on Urbanspoon

Island Creek Oyster Bar: Like Great Bay, Only Different (UPDATED 6/12)

***Two reviews for the price of one!***

The first time I went to Island Creek Oyster Bar (report after the jump), it was relatively empty; though the buzz was loud among the city’s food geeks, it had yet to spread. On my return visit a year-plus later, the giant house was packed to the gills. Little else has changed, however: both Jeremy Sewall’s kitchen & the bar—where long-&-still-rising stars Tom Schlesinger-Giudelli & Jackson Cannon ply their trade—remain at the center of a tightly run, smooth-sailing ship.

And you bet said ship trawls for daily-caught seafood. As he served us an absolute stunner of an off-menu dish composed of fish charcuterie, Schlesinger-Giudelli waxed ever so poetic about the 300-lb. bluefin that had come in straight off the boat to produce, among many other things, the pastrami-cured slices pictured center. My stars, they were beautiful, almost literally melting in the mouth, rich but clear-flavored—only subtly pungent (if that sounds like a contradiction in terms, trust me, it isn’t). The fluke crudo on the right might have been outstanding on its own but couldn’t quite hold up to its neighbors—the leftmost item being a luscious tidbit of smoked steelhead trout over a walnut pesto–daubed rye cracker topped with an orange segment: funky, salty, sour-sweet.

I followed it with the signature dish of fresh pasta tossed with pieces of braised short rib, copious chunks of lobster, & maitake mushrooms, which served as the icing on the umami cake;

it’s a solid hit, elegant yet robust, though it too was overshadowed by the unexpected: a buttermilk biscuit half-hidden among the side dishes.

Golden-topped & flaky-layered throughout (no small order at its 3-inch height), then lightly drizzled in a gently spiced honey butter, it was just obscenely spot-on. No meal here should go without at least one.

Not should it go without at least a few moments in the company of Schlesinger-Giudelli, as gracious as he is extremely well versed in all things boozy.

Island Creek Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon

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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

NO3

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,

NOoysterroast

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.

NOtartare

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

NOsandwich

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.

NOclams

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

Neptune Oyster on Urbanspoon