Considering its national reputation, Boston long managed to dodge an uncomfortable truth: For many years, our seafood restaurants weren’t that extraordinary, and we put one over on visitors with gloppy-chowder tourist traps. The city turned a corner 10 years ago with the arrival of Neptune Oyster, which paved the way for a handful of similarly excellent independent seafood restaurants. After a long stint helming Neptune’s kitchen, chef Michael Serpa recently struck out on his own, opening Select Oyster Bar in a Back Bay storefront with chef de cuisine Sebastian Martinez. While it’s not Neptune Redux, it hits many of the same highs while charting some new waters.
Longtime Serpa fans will be unsurprised by the outstanding raw bar and crudi, including unimpeachable raw oysters ($2.75) drawn from local waters between Maine and Martha’s Vineyard, with occasional, uniquely briny West Coast selections like smallish Hog Island oysters from Northern California. These pristine specimens need only the barest squeeze of lemon or squirt of mignonette. A crudo of Virginia striped bass ($17) boasts a subtle embellishment of cara-cara orange, fleur de sel and espelette, while dayboat scallop ceviche ($15) is happily, gently transformed by a marinade of lime, shallots and cilantro. If all you ate at Select was raw or nearly raw seafood, you’d do well indeed.
But Serpa and Martinez offer plenty of inventive cooked dishes, too. Billi-bi “Pierre Franey” ($12) is like an extravagant variant on New England clam chowder, its broth almost overpoweringly rich in cream, melted leeks and egg yolk, but good, plentiful PEI mussels provide just enough ocean-redolent counterweight to give the soup balance. Egg salad ($20) gorgeously surrounds a sunnyside egg with chopped asparagus and fresh favas in a fine smoked-trout dressing, a dollop of ebony sturgeon caviar providing a spiky salt accent. Arroz frito ($18) reads like squid-ink paella with its blackish sofrito, chunks of cuttlefish and roasted cauliflower, and wondrous, creamy crown of uni. Octopus basquaise ($15) features a vibrant sweet-pepper ragout dotted with green olives, golden raisins and potatoes, but truly wows with its fantastic treatment of octopus tentacles, braising them to tenderness and adding some exterior crunch and char on the plancha.
Steamed littleneck clams ($14), two dozen perfect little babies swimming in a gently garlicky sauce of butter, lemon, white wine and parsley, is a glorious, entirely forgivable cliche. Blue prawns a la plancha ($17) are similarly uncomplicated: five meaty giants barely dressed in olive oil and lemon, a messy bit of handwork to peel properly, their deep, sweet flavor a testament to impeccable freshness.
Larger dishes also range from elaborate to judiciously uncomplicated. Casco Bay hake “pil-pil” ($26) rests fillets atop a cushion of celery root puree and prettily adorns it with buttered hazelnuts and a salad of parsley and celery. Bouillabaisse Select ($35) starts with a fabulous foundation of saffron- and tomato-tinged broth based on shrimp-shell/fish-head stock, then generously piles on hake, arctic char, striped bass, mussels, giant prawn, potatoes and a big crouton smeared with pungent rouille. Icelandic arctic char ($26) is a rare misstep, not for its lovely underpinning of beet salad, dill and sorrel, but the fish’s uneven cooking, revealed in an unpleasantly underdone center. But the kitchen nails the presumably more-challenging preparation of whole roasted sea bream “taverna style” ($27), well-accompanied by a subtle, simple herb dressing, hearty roasted fennel and fingerling potatoes. Pan-roasted Maine lobster ($35) brings refinement to the tourist grail, splitting a good-sized hen down the middle, making its succulent tail meat and tomalley an easy extraction, with a terrific mound of soft-cooked Vidalia spring onions on top and a simple brown butter/lemon sauce. (You’ll need to put down the fork to tackle the half-cracked claws.)
Bar manager Gina Richard oversees a fine cocktail program, presumably sharing management’s love for Hemingway by pouring a Death in the Afternoon ($13.50), a deadly highball of Champagne and absinthe, and the Floridita daiquiri ($13.50) of rum, lime, grapefruit, simple syrup and Maraschino liqueur. The dozen-strong list of beers (all $8) leans on small, Northeastern craft brewers. The wine list provides some very thoughtful accompaniment to the seafood, including a sprightly assortment of rosés like the fizzy 2014 Ulacia Txakoli ($15) and the paler, more understated 2014 Domaine du Bagnol Cassis ($18), but prices carry a Back Bay premium.
Some customers may also balk at the automatic 20 percent pre-tax gratuity, though a word with management will “kindly remove it.” Service is so polished and warm that I never questioned the charge, but it’s an unusual step that risks offending otherwise-happy customers. The space presents a charming adaptation of a former residential townhouse, centered on a large, comfortable bar and completed with a lovely open-air rear patio. Having quickly taken its place among the growing ranks of genuinely excellent seafood restaurants, Select’s novel focus on more Mediterranean flavors gives it some useful differentiation. I expect its biggest drawback will be another parallel with Neptune: No reservations means locals and tourists alike will face long waits for its few-dozen seats. As problems go, that’s a classy one to have.
-Blue prawns a la plancha
-Pan-roasted Maine lobster
Hours: Sun.-Thu., 11:30 am-2:30 pm, 5-10 pm; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 am-2:30 pm, 5-11 pm
Parking: Metered street spaces, nearby private lots
Liquor: Full bar
Select Oyster Bar 50 Gloucester St., Boston (857-239-8064) selectboston.com