Chris Parsons is a talented seafood chef, probably one of the city’s best. He ran Catch for years in Winchester. I loved his follow-up, Parsons Table, which served a trout dish I remember vividly nearly a decade later. He has long promised to open Catch’s second coming in a more-central location, and now here it is.
My expectations were high. The Oyster Club is an exercise in managing them. On each visit since my first in August, the food and service have improved.
Given the restaurant’s name, oysters would seem to be the focus. They are a focus, but they disappear into a menu of more than three dozen dishes. There are only five varieties on offer, which feels too few for a place of this size and a menu of this scale. The Oyster Club has 100-plus seats. The prime spots overlooking the raw bar, where staffers shuck Moon Shoals and Mookie Blues arrayed over ice, are often empty. The oysters themselves are impeccable, served with mignonette, cocktail sauce, horseradish, and a lemon wedge. The shucking isn’t always; I’ve never before been served an oyster with a wedge of shell missing, the edges sharp and crunchy fragments swimming in the brine.
Ordering is overwhelming. You scan the many tempting offerings, in a quandary over which to choose. And then you realize the menu is printed on both sides, and you've only just begun to take it in.
There's a lot of redundancy. BBQ oysters with chipotle butter and lemon sound good, but if you're getting the oyster pan roast with cream and chile sauce, maybe that's overkill? It's Friday, though, so the "lobster of the day" is also a pan roast. (Other daily options are lobster bucatini on Mondays, tacos on Tuesdays, gumbo on Wednesdays, ravioli on Thursdays, green curry on Saturdays, and toast on Sundays.) Do you need two pan roasts? Should you get the lobster casserole, or is that too similar? Some servers can answer these questions in detail; others are also still trying to conquer the menu.
A piece of paper lists the raw bar offerings, so you can check off what you’d like. But for the most part it replicates what’s listed on the menu proper. There’s tinned fish, too. For people who don’t like raw oysters, there are cooked ones. For people who don’t like seafood, there’s meat: fried chicken, and also a fried chicken sandwich (Parsons is behind a coming fried-chicken outfit called Lily P’s); steak frites, and also dry-aged New York strip with a la carte sides; and then a burger, which is topped with mushrooms and Mornay sauce and demi-glace. For people who don’t eat meat, there are five different salads. I’m sure the kale salad is a wonderful encapsulation of autumn, with its shaved Brussels sprouts, dried cranberries, and toasted pumpkin seeds, but I never got around to trying it.
It's a good thing there's complimentary smoked bluefish pate, served with a silver sugar bowl of oversize oyster crackers. It's excellent, and it gives you something to chew on while you chew things over.
If the Oyster Club tries to be all things to all people, I'm chalking it up to Parsons's excitement at being back in the game. (The decor is a little muddled too, aiming for vintage-cruise nostalgia — model ships, classic light fixtures, navy accents — but aesthetically landing adjacent to hotel restaurant in its glossy newness, and seaside brewpub with its chalkboard illustrations of fishing flies.)
Some of his trademarks are here: high-quality ingredients, expert technique. A seafood chowder is a little heavy on the shrimp, but they are wonderful, delicate with a bit of snap. Fried clams can be a disaster ordered outside their normal shack habitat; these are huge and juicy, fried to a satisfying crunch, with lemon and tartar sauce.
Cape Cod scallops are served with prosciutto, figs, polenta, and balsamic, an overdone flavor combination prepared subtly enough to remind you why it became popular in the first place. The scallops, like the shrimp in the chowder, are cooked perfectly, wobbly and fresh. And grilled branzino, beheaded and boned, is a simple pleasure that takes me back to the trout dish that made me a fan of Parsons's cooking.
One of the best things on the menu is easy to overlook: calamari salad, filed between ceviche made with flavorless salmon and a seafood tower that costs $85. (Oysters are priced a la carte, and a dozen will run you $45, a little hard to swallow in the land of $1 oyster deals.) Just-cooked rings of squid are tossed with pickled vegetables, for a mouthful of contrasting textures and flavors. Tuna tartare is fine, too, kissed with sesame and a little chile spice, crab chips on the side.
But you don’t need two pan roasts, or even one; there is something unpleasantly sweet-sour about the rich sauce. It feels like a minor crime to find this much good seafood swimming in it. A cold lobster roll piles the meat into a huge, hearty hunk of bread when you want the gossamer melt of toasted hot dog bun on your tongue; I don’t mind the celery in here, but the diced tasso ham rides roughshod over the lobster. If you’re a purist, the hot, buttered version might be a better bet. Or, for pure retro pleasure, order the lobster casserole, which threatens to update itself with fennel (undetectable) but turns out to be just what you want: a pile of sweet meat under broiled Ritz crumbs with a little pitcher of extra foamy, lobster-scented sauce on the side. (Also excellent for dipping Old Bay-dusted fries or pretty much anything else on your table.)
Desserts like profiteroles and brownie sundaes are well executed: good chocolate sauce here, Toscanini's ice cream there. The cocktails have not been a strong suit, but a recent pineapple-tequila concoction called the Stimulator — it's named after a fly, yet vaguely embarrassing to order — is balanced enough to make me think they may be on the upswing. There ought to be a more-interesting list of white wine by the glass.
The oyster bar space is crowded in this town. We have so many stellar examples. There isn't room for faffing around.
There is a very good seafood restaurant hidden in the weeds here. But it’s the diner’s job to find it. We shouldn’t have to look so hard.
THE OYSTER CLUB *½
79 Park Plaza, Heritage on the Garden, Boston, 617-426-6700, www.theoysterclubboston.com All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $11-$24, sandwiches $15-$28, entrees $18-$55, desserts $12-$14.
Hours Sun 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Mon-Sat 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
Noise level Conversation easy.
What to order Calamari salad, fried clams, lobster casserole, grilled branzino.
**** Extraordinary | *** Excellent | ** Good | * Fair | (No stars) Poor