Trends in the restaurant business ebb and flow like the tides. French bistro has a moment and blazes brightly until customers flit to the next vogue du jour; a few years later, it all comes around again. Meanwhile, some motifs are constants, waiting for customers to find them, usually after shedding some youthful preconception like: “White tablecloth restaurants are too quiet.” Folks eventually value the intimacy of a room that doesn’t demand shouting over a 90-decibel din. A little genteel formality in service and ambiance can be refreshing, even romantic. That’s the ethos that partners Ian Calhoun, Vincent Vela and chef Carolyn Johnson of Concord’s 80 Thoreau are clearly chasing at Mooncusser Fish House, an oasis of ever-so-slightly retro refinement three floors up a spiral staircase in the Back Bay.
Not that the place feels fusty: The triangular, 60-seat room is a model of modern understatement in tones of white, cream, blonde and black, many seats featuring lovely views of the neighboring Castle at Park Plaza. A well-trained, attentive staff pads lithely about, with Calhoun and Vela playing ingratiating hosts. The old-school touches aren’t too over-the-top: The butter dish accompanying bread service has a wee silver dome, but your place setting has a sensible three pieces, not 20. Noise levels support easy conversation when the place is packed, yielding a feeling that is civil but lively, not hushed. It’s the kind of fish house where the first offering is a five-course tasting ($85, wine pairings another $55): fancy.
Johnson plates her menu of local seafood with painterly precision, some swish ingredients and a big dose of classical technique and refinement. Mooncusser chowder ($12) is a comparatively humble but smashing first course: a handful of pristine littlenecks in the shell, chopped clams, bits of smoked scallop and skate, and crescent-shaped oyster crackers in a delicate, not overly dairy-dosed broth. Scallop tartare ($16) is a generous fistful of velvety, coarsely diced flesh flecked with sweet corn, chives, waxed pepper and vanishingly mild bits of summer truffle, plus waffle chips for dipping. Tuna crudo ($15), four islands of rather thick-cut ruby tuna topped with wafers of pickled rhubarb and fennel, makes a brilliant Instagram post, but its flavors are muted, even bland. Heirloom tomatoes ($15) capture the last sweet whiff of a fading summer, perfect by themselves but given a kicky boost with squid and basil. Nicely pan-seared gnocchi ($17) boasts earthy chanterelles and a mild mustard sauce, but the promised uni amounts to a mere curl or two, a problem in a dish that needs more briny umami and perhaps some acid—the main impression here is of butter.
Monkfish ($35) has similar issues. It’s a few pan-roasted pieces of rich, firm-fleshed fish with tender, faintly bitter kohlrabi stalks in a thick, pale yellow tarragon bourride that registers too monochromatic on the eye and the tongue. The tarragon disappears into the butterfat-bomb of a sauce; a less stingy hand with the promised caviar (and again, some acid) would add needed contrasting accents. Other entrees offer more finely calibrated balance, like a beautifully browned fillet of skate ($30) wrapped around a vivid, rich filling of Maine lobster chunks and potato puree with chard stems and baby carrots alongside, and underneath, a lovely, subtle sauce Américaine. Guinea hen ($34) is another picture-pretty and delicious dish, boneless slices of fowl with a forcemeat-like layer of stuffing that adds superb meatiness underneath crisp skin atop a foundation of kale, plums, sharp edible flowers and delicate, crisp phyllo turnovers filled with thigh meat. The second-course showstopper is a whole grilled black bass ($40) expertly cooked to just-doneness, with dead-simple seasonings of saffron and cherry tomatoes plus a scattering of chickpeas—an impeccably fresh local specimen whose flavors are allowed to speak for themselves. (Ask for help with tableside filleting if you’re not practiced at it.)
Pastry chef Katie Hamilburg’s modernist desserts resemble abstract sculptures sparely arrayed on white plates, like a rectangle of mascarpone mousse ($12) topped with a teardrop of vanilla gelato, a brace of caramelized fig halves and a cube of bubbly honeycomb candy—as exquisite to look at as it is delectable.
There’s enough range on the 300-deep, French-leaning bottle list ($33-$675, most under $100, plenty under $70) to impress a date or business partner; we thought a nonvintage Guy Larmandier “Vertus” Premier Cru champagne ($93) was a bargain. There’s also good value in 16 wines by-the-glass ($12-$21), six small-producer beers (all $7/bottle) and a tight list of fortified wines by-the-glass suitable for dessert ($9-$14).
Though the kitchen may occasionally need a freer hand with lemons and luxury ingredients, this place represents a worthy first incursion into hyper-competitive Boston proper for a team that made its bones in the leafy, sleepy exurbs. And to the kind of customer who’s just coming around to certain venerable restaurant virtues—old-world panache, the mannerly tableau of crisp linens and fine stemware, and the ability to murmur a subtle proposition and actually be heard—Mooncusser, far too elegant to be called a mere fish house, offers a sumptuous primer. ◆
Whole-grilled black bass
Mooncusser Fish House, 304 Stuart St., Boston (617-917-5193) mooncusserfishhouse.com; Hours: Mon.-Sat., 5 pm-10 pm; Liquor: Beer and wine; Reservations: Yes; Parking: Metered street spaces, nearby private garages and lots