Ask anyone to name the number one most popular restaurant in Boston, and you're bound to hear Neptune Oyster thrown in the mix. Quintessential New England fare, Neptune Oyster has always been known for its excellent oyster selection, the best hot lobster roll in town, and an unforgettable Johnny cake (just to mention a few!). There is always a line, and waits can easily stretch up to 4 - 5 hours. It's not unusual to show up at dinnertime and to be told that the line is too long and no more tables are available that day.
And then Neptune's Executive Chef, Michael Serpa, decided he was going to leave and open his own restaurant.
It's no surprise that this opening has been highly anticipated.
Chef Serpa's new restaurant, SELECT Oyster Bar, is finally here (grand opening was April 2015). I'm pleased to report that it's fantastic. It's everything I would want in a neighborhood seafood restaurant (too bad it's not my neighborhood, boo hoo). Despite having ridiculously high standards (how can you not when it's Michael Serpa?), I came away from my first meal extremely impressed and wanting to return as soon as I could.
The restaurant is located in the heart of Back Bay, a trendy neighborhood that, despite its quaint feel and fancy boutique shops, has never been known for its food. Select Oyster Bar fills a very needed void in Back Bay, an area mostly filled with touristy establishments that are more scene than substance and larger, more formal restaurants that cater to the corporate business crowd. There are very few small, independently-owned restaurants in that area.
Chef Serpa did not want to open another Neptune. Though he was brilliant at it, he was tired of making lobster rolls, fried clams, and New England chowder day in and day out. He wanted to exercise his culinary creativity while sticking to what he knows best - seafood.
The restaurant is really the product of a lot of love and sweat from Chef Serpa and his wife / business partner, Lina Velez. The two of them picked out the artwork, designed the look and feel of the restaurant, and basically built the place up. There's no official general manager, so they end up taking on a chunk of all that business stuff.
And then there is the food!
The food is whatever comes out of the creative minds of Chef Serpa and his Chef de Cuisine, Sebastian Martinez. The two of them bounce ideas off of each other and love being creative with the menu.
I fully appreciate their creativity, and absolutely loved the vibrant flavors from many of the dishes we tasted.
The space is small (seats around 30 people), but reasonably well laid out. There is a long bar in the center and then various tables off to the side. There is a fun patio in the back that we didn't discover until the end of our meal. I'd love to try that the next time I'm there!
The menu is divided up into several sections. Fruits de Mer is focused on seafood (larger platters to share $95 - $155; individual plates $8 - $15), and has everything from simple seafood platters (raw oysters, clams, prawns, and the like) to artfully dressed "tartare" and even Russian caviar. Starters ($12 - $17) are very seafood focused and derive inspiration from all over the globe (France, Greece, Spain, just to name a few). Mains ($26 - $35) are larger seafood entrees, such as a whole grilled fish in the Greek "taverna style", a pan roasted lobster, and various types of fish. There is one non-seafood item on the menu, the steak, which I've heard is amazing.
"If you're only going to have one non-seafood item on the menu, it better be good."
You have to get oysters if you visit an oyster bar, and we made sure to try all six! It was fun to taste the different flavors and compare tasting notes. All of the oysters were from the East Coast, running up and down the coast from New Brunswick (Canada!) to Maine and then Massachusetts.
Then it was time for the starters. We began with the Roasted Black Mission Figs ($16), a crostini topped with smoked Rhode Island bluefish, creme fraiche, and verjus. It was delicious. The sweetness of the figs nicely balanced out the salty richness of the smoked bluefish pate. Everything was fresh and the ingredients were high quality.
Specials are advertised on a black chalkboard right inside the restaurant. We ordered the crudo special, a Black Bass Tartare with fresh red currents, chives, and lemon. It was fresh, vibrant, and just perfect for a hot summer day.
One of my favorite dishes of the entire evening was the Faroe Island Salmon Crudo ($14). Three gorgeous slices of fresh salmon came topped with togarashi, pistachio oil, and lime. The flavors were absolutely stunning. It reminded me of the salty, fragrant umami from one of my favorite Chinese chili sauces ("Old Lady Sauce", we call it). I loved how the lime and pistachio oil added a bright yet smooth counterbalance to the peppery togarashi.
Another fantastic dish was the grilled Spanish Octopus ($18), which came with roasted tomatillo, chimichurri, blistered snap peas, and serrano chili. The roasted tomatillo sauce was phenomenal. Every component worked together to create balance: the charred octopus (which was soft and tender, perfectly cooked!), the intense tomatillo sauce, the crunchy charred snap peas, and the floral cilantro. Bryan especially loved the crazy amounts of fresh cilantro on top.
The Egg Salad ($20) looked impressive. The large bowl came with lots of greens (dominated by parsley), asparagus, and fava beans tossed together in a smoked trout dressing. In the center sat a perfectly cooked sunny side up egg and a generous dollop of sturgeon caviar.
It was good, but it wasn't my favorite. I personally felt that the parsley flavor was too dominant ("parsley-forward", as one of our dining companions called it), and overshadowed the rest of the ingredients. It was easy for the eggs and caviar to get a bit lost in the forest of greens.
The Flash Seared Hamachi ($19) came with three pieces of barely seared hamachi decorated with a whole host of Middle Eastern ingredients, including tandoori spice, labne, za'atar pita crisps, and Persian cucumbers. Simple, fresh, and delicious.
We were drawn to yet another one of the specials on the chalkboard, the Dayboat Scallops ($36), which came with sauteed sweet corn, zucchini salad, almonds, and a red pepper sauce. The scallops were top quality - juicy, sweet, and tender. The dish came with four scallops, so we each were able to eat one. All in all, it was very tasty and I especially loved the sweetness from the corn. Just don't order this if you're really hungry, since it's not huge.
For our other entree, our table shared the Whole Roasted Sea Bream 'taverna style' ($27). This preparation is simple, reminiscent of what's done in tavernas (asual eating establishments) in Greece. Here, a whole roasted sea bream is simply topped with a basic herb dressing and served over roasted fennel and fingerling potatoes.
This fish totally reminded me of my trip to Santorini, Greece, where we stopped by a simple seafood shanty right next the the ocean. After picking out our fish, they grilled the fish whole for us to enjoy while we sat facing the ocean.
The server recommended we get this dish because the portion size was larger and it would be good to share. The dish was simple and executed well, though it didn't blow me away like some of the other dishes.
All in all, we really enjoyed Select Oyster Bar. I am most impressed with the smaller plates, like the fun crudos, tartares, and other interesting cooked seafood dishes (hello octopus!). Entrees are solid and well executed, but my favorites are the starters. Chef Serpa is extremely talented, and I love what he's doing with seafood at his restaurant. The prices are expensive (after all, I'm sure rent in that prime location is not cheap!), and things can quickly add up, especially since portion sizes are generally quite small. However, it's hard to find seafood made at this quality of ingenuity and execution, especially in this area. For many of the dishes, it's worth it.
One thing to note - they do automatically add a 20% gratuity on your bill. They want to provide a stable form of income for the service staff and would prefer that the staff focus on providing good service instead of how much they will be making on gratuity. If you are really opposed to it, you can ask the management to remove it from the bill.
I really enjoyed this place. I wish (selfishly) that it were closer to me. Chef Serpa had considered several locations (in fact, Back Bay was not even on his original radar), and he indicated that he really likes Harvard Square. Maybe once he's settled in Back Bay I can convince him to open up a second restaurant in Harvard. Seriously, if there were something like this close to my house, I'd be there all the time.
One can dream, right?
SELECT Oyster Bar
50 Gloucester St., Boston