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

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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,

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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.

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

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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.

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

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