Review: Island Creek Oyster Bar

A simple, confident take on clam-shack cuisine
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  April 24, 2011
4.0 4.0 Stars

Island Creek Oyster Bar
LOBSTER ROE noodles have some seafood flavor and a softer texture than fettuccine. Topped with sliced short rib, it’s a fascinating dish.

This is confusing, as about eight years ago I reviewed a fine seafood restaurant in this space, where chef Jeremy Sewall was doing terrific things with Island Creek oysters from Duxbury. Now I'm back, and so is the chef, and so — in many ways — are the oysters: their shells covering the entire back wall, and their delicious bodies all over the menu. The new place is less formal and intimidating (though still not cheap) and even more locavore, but aren't we all?

With this comes some welcome simplification. The bread basket has one item: fantastic dense rye, with oddly sweetened unsalted butter, and a dish of sea salt to add if you like. For appetizers, there is nothing simpler than a raw bar, and so in we go! My tests were the eponymous Island Creeks from Duxbury ($2 each); Big Rocks ($2.50) from Dennis, comparable to my benchmark Wellfleets as a mild, Cape oyster; and a couple Belons ($3.50). Belons are actually a different subspecies, from France, that have gone wild and are also cultured in Maine. The flavor is meatier. I found the Island Creeks briny and coppery, the Big Rocks a little more so, and a little less fresh and sweet. The Belons were much more intense and a bit fishy. In a world without price, those would be the ones to fry or bake.

My guess is that the Island Creeks are going into oyster sliders ($4 each), but I would discourage this. The cornmeal breading overcomes the mild flavor of local oysters, and the round buttered buns are much too much. The chef actually hits stride with "no shell mussels" ($11), which are mussel meats in subtle cream sauce with a lot of saffron and a hint of smoked paprika, eked out with some Israeli couscous — it's a fantastic dish. The pan-fried Jonah crab cake ($14) featured at the chef's previous restaurants is the acme of its kind, all meat with a little slaw of celery root and greens. And no one should miss the grilled razor clams ($11), which are generally ignored on the East Coast because they are so hard to catch relative to other fine seafood. They aren't as strong-flavored as other clams, but the subtle freshness roasts up nicely with just tiny cubes of pancetta for contrast. (Plus, they have a cool shape.) An arugula salad was seasonally mild, with the usual shaved aged cheese, the not-so-usual morsels of peeled pink grapefruit, and marcona almonds.

A real coup in April is the "wild Virginia striped bass" ($32). It isn't a big piece, but the full flavor of real striper wouldn't otherwise be available here for months. The fried Michigan ramps are pretty but no better tasting than onion rings; however, the wild mushrooms, pea tendrils, and balls of white turnip were fine foils. The seared sea scallops ($28), out of New Bedford (almost everything on the menu has an enumerated source), were as classic as the crab cake, with a little local polenta, bits of red beet, and minced shiitake mushrooms with pancetta underneath.

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