Island Creek Oyster Bar Review

First published in The New York Times on January 14, 2011. Read the original with comments here.

Island Creek Oyster Bar brings a special twist to the trend of farm-to-table restaurants: the small farms carefully listed next to each dish on Oyster Creek’s menu specialize in aquaculture, the raising of seafood and shellfish. But that’s not all: the restaurant itself is an extension of Island Creek Oysters, a farm founded in 1992 in nearby Duxbury, Mass. So it’s no surprise that though the menu is long and varied, at Island Creek, which opened in October, oysters take pride of place.

On a recent visit, 12 varieties were on offer, mostly from Massachusetts, but with a few from California, Washington and Canada. Our waitress recommended the Island Creek oysters themselves and the Dodge Coves, from Maine. Both are from the same batch of seed oysters, so tasting the two side by side emphasizes the importance of “merroir” — a term the oyster community uses in place of terroir. The Island Creek oysters were large and finished with a melonlike sweetness, while the Dodge Coves were more briny.

“Our nursery is in a saltwater river, where the water is warmer,” said Skip Bennett, the founder of Island Creek and a co-owner of the Oyster Bar. As the oysters mature, they are moved closer to the ocean. Their gentle upbringing produces large oysters with a sweet ocean taste. Shigoku oysters, from Bay Center, Wash., also stood out as particularly bright and flavorful.

Raw isn’t the only option, of course. More oysters, battered and fried, are served as sliders on sweet brioche buns. (The fried versions lack the seawater brininess of the fresh ones, making them a good dish for kids or squeamish novices, but disappointing for true aficionados.)

Island Creek’s seafood preparations extend beyond the oyster. An appetizer of steamed Duxbury littleneck clams, flavored with orange, basil and garlic, was delicious, with a pleasingly firm texture.

Jeremy Sewall, the executive chef and a co-owner, is equally adept at handling terrestrial ingredients, and there is a small section of the menu titled “From the Land.” The Vermont burger with Cheddar and house-cured bacon on a sweet caramelized onion roll is delicious. But it’s no competition for a neatly composed main dish of seared scallops with kuri squash, black trumpet mushrooms and kumquat. The acid in the kumquat brightens and brings together the deep umami flavors of the scallops and mushrooms. It is this attention to flavor composition and ingredient sourcing that elevates Island Creek above the recent spate of new oyster joints.

Island Creek Oyster Bar; 500 Commonwealth Avenue; (617) 532-5300; Meal for two, about $100 without drinks or tip.