Boston’s restaurant boom of the past few years has witnessed the arrival of scores of shiny new dining locales in the Seaport, the Fenway, old residential Southie and the once undeveloped margins of the South End. Even that most reliably stolid tourist destination, the North End, appears to be responding to a relentless hunger for the new. Where Neptune Oyster long stood out as a lone purveyor of New England seafood amid a sea of Italian-American red-sauce joints, the picturesque old neighborhood now features a handful of spots to get raw oysters, fried clams and lobster rolls. North Square Oyster is the latest to jump on this bandwagon, and onboard is executive chef Douglas Rodrigues, who brings his days as executive chef at Clio into occasional, surprising focus here.If you open in 2017 with “Oyster” in your name, you’d better get raw bar right, and North Square does not fall down, serving 12 varieties nightly ($2.50-$3.50 apiece), mostly from Massachusetts and Maine harbors, with occasional imports from Virginia and Washington State. It’s great fun to order an assortment and recognize how much “merroir” (hyper-local variations in the beasties’ diets and environs) affects their flavor. Dotting them with any of six complimentary housemade sauces adds further intrigue (we loved the three mignonettes, especially the angelica-spiked one). Rodrigues also tarts up his oysters in gorgeous avant-garde drag in the form of composed oysters ($5-$6 apiece), with delicately laid-on adornments like watermelon pearls, rosé and crème fraîche (modestly sweet and tangy) or hibiscus-infused ponzu sauce with a cherry-cured quail-egg yolk (more assertively umami-rich but still letting some oyster whiff shine through). Start with naked oysters, progress to dabbing on some sauces, end on composed: oyster-eating from the primitive to the molecular-gastronomic on one plate.As the tourist imperative must be served, there are very fine versions of a lobster roll ($29, cold or hot—the brown-butter-drenched hot is superior) and a double-patty bacon cheeseburger ($16), both served with excellent fries. We eye rolled hard at clam chowder boule ($11)—how touristy can touristy get?—but an outstanding bread bowl made of kombucha sourdough, crisp vegetables, plenty of clams and an only slightly thickened broth added up to surprising satisfaction. Our higher expectations for seafood stew ($35) were dashed by a badly overcooked bevy of mussels, littlenecks, shrimp, salmon and cod: such a shame to dry out and rubberize all that beautiful seafood, especially at that price. It’s also striking when this chef misses the modernist mark, as in a sea urchin crudo ($16) in which the unpleasantly weird sweetness of Asian-style quick-pickled white asparagus and plum sauce clashed against the uni’s briny richness.
But then Rodrigues executes a coup like his lobster-and-oxtail Bolognese ($18/half, $30/ whole) over rigatoni, a staggeringly delicious, luxurious ragu dotted with parsnips and ricotta, the half-portion generous and rich enough for several to share as a mid-course. Then he has us shaking our heads in wonderment at a plate of fish & chips ($21)—fish & chips!—as it might be the best rendition of this humble pub standby we’ve ever had: a meaty cod filet with a subtle, thin, tempura-crisp batter, perfectly fried and served with subtly juniper-accented tartar sauce and more of those good fries. This menu may be uneven and wander into some unexpected corners, but when it hits, it thunders.Desserts (all $7) are decent if not ravishing— spice-cake-like Depression cake makes the best use ever of Dunks hazelnut coffee by using it to flavor the accompanying ice cream, and the chiffon cake is a tasty if sloppy jumble of almond chiffon cake chunks, good fruit and strawberry sorbet—but all would be improved by more attractive vessels than their homely dark bowls. Virtues include some very well-executed cocktails (the beverage director and general manager hails from owner Nick Frattaroli’s other North End spot, Ward 8, which has the other best drinks in the neighborhood) and a wine list that resists the usual North End restaurateur’s urge to gouge on price. We enjoyed the bracingly oyster-friendly 2015 Sauvion muscadet (a solid $51) and the fizzy, refreshing 2015 Txomin Etxaniz txakoli (very nice at $52). The ambiance is tough to beat, too, in a two-story space that charmingly evokes the 19th century. Most tables look out on breathtakingly scenic North Square, a cobblestoned panorama of 400-plus years of Boston history, though pressed-tin ceilings can make things a bit shouty at prime time. Service is typical for the neighborhood, prizing personality over polished service chops, though even the most charming staffer cannot cover for the long pauses between courses that the kitchen produced on several visits.
Longtime locals are correct to be wary of the North End: Too many of its venues are too happy to fleece visitors who will never return, and there are too many better, more traditional Italian restaurants all over town these days. But North Square Oyster is too earnest, too delicious and too good a value when it hits its marks to be deemed a tourist trap. The trick for Bostonians will be to triangulate what this kitchen, with its ungainly mix of trite but de rigueur classics and ambitiously modern seafood dishes, does best, as beyond raw bar, it can be the opposite of what you might expect. ♦
Clam chowder boule
Hot lobster roll
Lobster & oxtail Bolognese
Fish & chips
North Square Oyster 5 North Square, Boston (617-829- 4975) northsquareoyster.com Hours: 11:30 am-1 am, weekdays; 11 am-1 am, weekends Reservations: Yes Parking: Private lots Liquor: Full bar