Out of Water
A visual trawl through the city’s top seafood dishes
Turner looked at the ocean and saw the beauty and terror of the sublime. Melville used it as a metaphor for the mystery of the infinite. A lot of us, however, gaze into the immeasurable deep, the womb of all earthly life, the surface of nearly three-quarters of our blue planet, and see a buffet. One with an excellent raw bar.
It wasn’t loaves and pork chops that got Jesus to perform a miracle. Addiction to seafood is one of the engines of history—you don’t have much of a medieval economy without salted herring. In Copley’s “Watson and the Shark,” the roles should’ve been reversed, with a fleshy youth rearing up to take a bite from an innocent dorsal fin. So Joseph Conrad was full of it when, in The Mirror of the Sea, he wrote that the ocean “has never been friendly to man.” The sea is a glutton’s paramour. And Boston, perched as it is on the edge of Georges Bank, has historically been lucky in cod.
When we set out to pick the 10 most outstanding seafood dishes on the menu this summer, it immediately became apparent that a list of 20, or 40, would’ve been easier to compile. Whither the salt and pepper squid at Peach Farm? The ceviche at Rincón Limeño? The grigliata di pesce at Mare? The lobster pizza at UpStairs on the Square? To say nothing of the eternal controversy raised by chowder. (Thick or brothy? Pronounced salt pork, or leave it to the mollusks?)
Bostonians really are spoilt.
Kamusa wild Japanese Barracuda with yuzu, truffle and shiso ($24)
The problem with O Ya is the embarrassment of fishes. There’s simply too much to choose off a menu that includes shima aji and Santa Barbara sea urchin in a ceviche vinaigrette. But it’s this morsel of barracuda that captures considerably more than just the taste of summer. Lightly cured in smoked salt, and with a jaunty cap of torched skin, the initial flavor is clean whitefish washed down by citrusy yuzu. Next comes a counterpunch of oven-dried tomato for a tinge of sunlit garden. But underlying the whole is a grounding in truffles—it’s essence of earth paired with essence of sea. Note that it may not always be available. “During spawning season, the flesh can be too soft,” says chef/owner Tim Cushman, who won this year’s James Beard award for Best Chef in the Northeast. “But our suppliers know what we want.”
9 East St., Boston | 617-654-9900 | oyarestaurant.com
Roasted blue cod with butterball potatoes, mussels chowder, bacon and herb nage ($27)
Cod is the paragon of mild-flavored fish, and chef William Kovel plays on its delicacy by means of a mussel-studded chowder. “The broth is made with stock from the bones of the fish, Liquid from the shellfish and a little bit of cream,” he says. Pan roasted to a golden brown, the pearly flesh remains as moist as sashimi. Underneath, the chowder lends the fish a buttery grounding, while the mussels add their natural taste of mushroom and brine. Olive-oil–smashed potatoes and bacon complete the dish, a reminder, says Kovel, of his family home in Rhode Island.
300 Technology Square | Cambridge | 617-576-3000| catalystrestaurant.com
BBQ shrimp with mango salad ($10)
While the shrimp tacos at chef Michael Schlow’s Latinized hotspot have a vocal following, it’s this humbler small plate that’s more original. Lightly battered shellfish arrive in an orange barbecue glaze under a crown of diced mango. Flirting with jamminess, the sweet sauce risks overwhelming the shrimp by treading in General Tso territory, but is pulled from the brink by the mango’s acid punch.
222 Berkeley St., Boston | 617-351-0400 | ticoboston.com
Fried Ipswich clams ($26)
Magazines are always waxing lyrical about B&G’s lobster roll, but owner Barbara Lynch’s personal favorite from the menu’s New England staples is this idealized version of the simple clam basket. Chef de cuisine Stephen Oxaal’s gentle hand on the breading means you’re tasting the animal, not the fryolator. “We dredge our clams in a mixture of flour and a small amount of semolina, and then fry them for 30 seconds max,” says Oxaal. Utterly clean of grit, the strips are meaty and thick, while the bellies have the silky texture of foie. They seem so elevated, it’s tempting to refer to them as clam frites.
550 Tremont St., Boston | 617-423-0550 | bandgoysters.com
Spicy Lobster tacos ($14)
“I made this on a whim,” says chef Jeremy Sewall. “I never thought I’d keep it on the menu.” A cross-continental dish evoking Baja California by way of the Maine seacoast, this is a study in summer flavors, combining notes of cilantro, lime and mango. No single taste overpowers the buttery foundation of chilled lobster chunks and avocado mousse—a pairing that’s so complementary it’s a surprise it’s not more common. “It has all the things that help lobster be great: a little spice, acid, creamy texture and crunch.”
242 Harvard St., Brookline | 617-232-0065 | lineagerestaurant.com
Legal Harborside Floor One
One of the simplest seafood dishes in the repertoire, these clams find apotheosis in broth. “We start with sweet Cape Ann clams that are hand-dug and sized perfectly,” says chef Chris Cowen. “Then we steam them with white wine, lemon slices, fresh thyme, sliced garlic and ground pepper.” Simmered in this umami bath, they don’t even need a dip in melted butter to give them juice. You bite into meat, not sand—there’s never a stray grain—and the liquid demands shameless finger-licking. Make sure to ask for an extra cup of broth for sponging bread.
270 northern Ave., Boston | 617-477-2900 | legalseafoods.com
Rialto Restaurant + Bar
Monkfish saddle with house bacon, roasted asparagus and mushroom ragout ($36)
While sister restaurant Trade is getting a lot of attention for its rightly lauded whole grilled fish of the day, chef Jody Adams perfected her seafood skills in her flagship kitchen. Rialto’s striped bass with mint and sesame is the ur-fish to Trade’s, but it’s this meatier invention that holds an edge in savor. The dense texture of monkfish can carry a hearty sauce, and this one is born from a blessed marriage of mushrooms and bacon. Brightened with a snap of asparagus, the flavors are classically northern Italian and rich, although rich is a pale word to describe a distillate of forest, farm and sea.
Bennett St., Cambridge | 617-661-5050 | rialto-restaurant.com
Uni sashimi bar
Chef’s Choice Sashimi platter ($115 per person)
If dolphins had good credit, this is what they’d order for dinner. Only the most jeweled cuts—the pride of a fishing fleet—make the grade for chef Chris Gould, and it would be criminal to taint them with Kikkoman. Hamachi brushed with grapefruit, cubinelle peppers and shiso; bigeye tuna dressed with mustard vinaigrette, shallots and benetade; tai sprinkled with rhubarb and chili oil; saba with freshly grated wasabi, house-made umeboshi and volcanic salt. “We try to get as much local stuff as possible,” gould says. “In the winter, live sea urchin, live scallops, Rhode Island fluke, all our oysters come from Maine. Beyond that we get stuff from Japan, New Zealand, Spain, Hawaii.” But the garnishes never upstage the fish. Here, laid out in slices of magenta, ivory and rose, is purity on a trestle.
370 comm. Ave., Boston | 617-536-7200 | unisashimibar.com
Buttermilk johnnycake ($16)
A Cornmeal pancake is flatly prosaic; not as lumpen as porridge, but typically as drab a food as the common doughnut. Unless it shows ambition. In the case of this regional twist on the blini, a single New England–style cake is coated with sweet maple-and-honey butter, while a cylinder of pale, smoked trout tartare rises from the center, shingled on the top by grains of Little Pearl caviar. It’s a finely tuned blend of salt and sweet, with the warm, airy pancake, a surprising bedrock for the oily, chilled fish.
63 Salem St., Boston | 617-742-3474 | neptuneoyster.com
Island Creek Oyster Bar
Lobster Roe Noodles ($27)
The violent, tangerine hue of the pasta is a ruse. There’s nothing gaudy or overweening in this unctuous confection of grilled lobster with braised short ribs, mushrooms and crunchy green peas. In fact, it’s a dish born of thrift. “The pasta started as a way to use all the roe we collected as we cooked lobsters,” says chef Jeremy Sewall. The richness of the beef and mushrooms plays off the subtle maritime tang of the noodles, and the peas add a textural counterpoint. Sewall admits it’s decadent. But it’s also flawlessly balanced, and one of the restaurant’s biggest sellers.
500 Comm. Ave., Boston | 617-532-5300 | islandcreekoysterbar.com