Time-traveling Bostonians from 2004 would doubtless be staggered by 2014’s version of the Seaport. Recalling the crumbling, vacant warehouses surrounding the then-new Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, they’d marvel at today’s concentration of hotels, shiny office spaces, pricey condos and restaurants. “Wow, we can eat well on Boston Harbor now?” “Yes,” you’d explain, “but you have to pick your spots. Seaport Boulevard has the views, but it’s mostly chain outlets. The cool indie kids with the interesting food are a couple of blocks over in Fort Point, mostly along Congress Street.” To drive that point home, you might take them to Row 34, from the veteran team behind Kenmore Square’s Island Creek Oyster Bar: innovative Duxbury oyster farmer Skip Bennett, seafood master chef Jeremy Sewell and restaurateur extraordinaire Garrett Harker.
Fans of ICOB will find much that is familiar on the menu, starting with pristine Atlantic oysters ($2-$3 each) drawn from Maine to Virginia. Unimpeachably fresh, expertly handled (no trace of grit in any bivalve I ate), offering delicately unique flavors echoing distinctive home harbors and diets, these deliver a near-perfect raw-bar experience. (E for effort on the cilantro mignonette, but these specimens barely need a drib of the traditional version, and clobbering them with horseradish cocktail sauce seems criminal.) Three curls of tuna crudo ($15) reflect the decline of this overfished species; black garlic and lemon cannot hide its mushy blandness. Fluke crudo ($12) is far superior: fresh-tasting, firm and nicely punched up with pickled and fresh chilies. The smoked and cured board ($18/person) provides a convenient sample of the kitchen’s flair with seafood charcuterie, like a gorgeous wedge of tilefish terrine, tiny and delectable smoked shrimp and mussels, and smokier slices of trout. Superb.
Appetizers include lettuce cups ($12), three crisply fried oysters nesting daintily on Boston lettuce with some pickled vegetables and a squiggle of aioli, like a low-carb slider. Deviled crab toast ($14) dresses a big pile of fresh crabmeat in a subtly creamy sauce with a sprinkling of smoked paprika and scant bits of celery—expect dueling forks over this dish. The shrimp slider ($4), a few fat prawns dressed in chipotle mayo and chili-spiked sweet pickles on a chewy little roll, is a delicious value, worth ordering in multiples. Clam chowder ($9) is laudable for eschewing starchy thickeners, but its heavy cream and smoky bacon overwhelm the flavor of coarsely chopped clams. That’s not an issue with the excellent fried clams ($15 small, $28 large), boasting a first-rate fry job with a hint of pepper in the batter.
That deluxe treatment of shore-food classics continues with two lobster rolls ($23 each), one cold and mayo-dressed, the other warm and buttered, each a generous heap of tail and claw meat: exemplary renditions. Entrees show more refinement, as in a whole fish of the day ($25), red snapper on a recent weeknight, expertly done, moist and firm, albeit challenging for diners who fear many small bones. Requiring less care in eating is pan-roasted monkfish ($27), a brick-sized fillet again showing sure-handed cooking. The seafood-averse may happily opt for the very good bacon cheddar burger ($15) with caramelized onions, marred only by a cloying brioche bun, or the serviceable flat-iron steak ($23). Eight side dishes ($6) include skinny Old Bay-spiked onion rings that are brutally oversalted. Far better are roasted carrots with pistou and herb yogurt, and surprisingly fine broccoli with ale-spiked cheese sauce. On the teensy dessert menu, supernally creamy, luscious butterscotch pudding ($6) topped with Chantilly cream and crisped rice is the standout.
Lack of a spirits license is forgivable in light of an extraordinary list of small-producer craft beers: two dozen on tap ($6-$14), plus standard-size cans and bottles ($6-$30) and large-format bottles ($18-$85). Italy’s creamy, almost briny Perle ai Porci Oyster Stout ($12) is a classic match for oysters, while sour ales like Belgium’s Petrus Aged Pale ($9) stand up well to smoked and fried seafood. The wine list is similarly seafood-friendly, thoughtfully curated and refreshingly value-priced, with 13 options by the glass ($8-$13) and 44 in bottles ($25-$185), most $50 or less.
The stunning industrial-chic design, adorned with oyster-farm racks, endless rows of steel-canopied pendant lights, reclaimed wood, exposed brick and soaring ceilings, recalls the space’s origins as a 19th-century steel mill, though the many hard surfaces abet an eardrum-punishing roar when the place is packed, as it frequently already is. Service upholds Harker’s reputation, long burnished at Eastern Standard, for cultivating a casually hospitable staff well-versed in the intricacies of long food, beer and wine lists. Row 34 carries off its complicated dance—raw bar, clam shack, fine-dining seafood joint, beer-geek bar—with very few missteps at pretty fair prices, right where locals, tourists and conventioneers can’t miss it. With just a few more like it, Boston might actually live up to its reputation as a city rich with terrific local seafood restaurants.
-Smoked and cured board
-Deviled crab toast
-Fried hand-dug clams
Hours: Mon.-Fri., 11:30 am-11 pm; Sat.-Sun., 5-11 pm
Credit Cards: Yes
Parking: Street and garage
Liquor: Beer and wine
Row 34 | 383 Congress St., Boston | 617-553-5900 | row34.com