Aujourd’hui, L’Espalier, Locke-Ober, Radius: Many of Boston’s best-known occasion restaurants are gone. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been asked “Now where do I celebrate that big birthday or anniversary?,” I could buy myself a white tablecloth and hire a TaskRabbit to crumb my table.
So here is an answer: Ostra. Elegant and lively, it is the sophisticated seafood restaurant this city requires. How strange it would be if Boston, the hub of fish-famous New England, had no fine dining that showcased the stuff.
Ostra is part of Columbus Hospitality Group, in operation now for 25 years. It is perhaps best known for Mistral, the flagship French bistro opened by chef Jamie Mammano and partner Paul Roiff in 1997. Other restaurants followed, including the Italian Sorellina and Mooo…., a Beacon Hill steakhouse that has expanded to the Seaport and Burlington. The hospitality group as a whole deserves recognition for consistent excellence over time. Its restaurants are classy, unwavering, special without being ostentatious. They don’t stand out for experimental cuisine or trendy cocktail programs or other such hallmarks of today’s fine dining (not dead, just evolving, as things do). They are investment pieces diners turn to season after season, and rightly so.
Situated in Park Square, Ostra sometimes flies under the radar when people talk about restaurants. Yet it has a clear following. Take a seat in the dining room — with its white walls, soaring ceilings, and large-scale black-and-white photos of the rocky shore — and that’s easy to see. On the way in from the convivial bar, you’ll pass focused cooks in an open kitchen, fish gleaming on a bed of ice. The room is loud. It always has been. At this point, safe to say it’s a choice, and one with drawbacks. But if it were quiet in here, it might feel stuffy. It never does. It’s remarkable how much actual, genuine fun guests appear to be having. It’s remarkable how busy the restaurant is later on a weeknight, booked to the gills. It feels cosmopolitan in a city that starts yawning early.
Executive chef Alex Interiano’s menu has barely budged from the restaurant’s opening version in late 2013, yet it feels right for the moment, which means it was ahead of its time. At long last, Boston restaurants are homing in on seafood en masse — it seems a cool new oyster bar opens each week, and I hope that continues until oysters are served in every corner of the city, and then we’ll be Paris and have universal health care and take the entire month of August off. But at Ostra, diners have been eating Duxbury Powder Points and Maine Unicorns, crudo compositions, and simply, perfectly cooked fish all along — deep wine list, pitch-perfect service, and tablecloth included. If Boston has an equivalent to New York’s famed fish restaurant Le Bernardin, this is surely it.
And why would Interiano ever remove the sea bass tartare? Bites of fish bound with truffle aioli and topped with shaved black truffle, it balances lightness with just a touch of the rich; there are crisp fennel pollen crostini to crunch alongside. Salmon tartare is smoked to order and arrives under a cloche. A server lifts the domed top and plumes billow forth. The smoke disperses to reveal fish dolloped generously with caviar and cream. It’s a schmear with showmanship, hold the bagel.
There are simple pleasures here, too. (There are also dishes featuring meat for those who desire them.) Platters of colossal shrimp arrive on ice with cocktail sauce and lemon wedges. Each meal starts with a little loaf of house-made ciabatta topped with sliced fingerlings — potato chips, basically, as they crisp while baking. It comes with good butter and olive oil, so no one has to choose.
Ricotta gnocchetti is another dish that should never come off the menu. The tender little dumplings mingle with Maine lobster, beech mushrooms, and a further supply of black truffle. Every bit as good, and easier to miss: fennel and lemon risotto with tiger prawns. It showcases the kitchen’s care, served at the perfect temperature, the grains al dente and infused with deep shellfish flavor, beautiful prawns cooked just so. When two guests are sharing, the kitchen splits the dish, plating each portion separately.
Careful cooking carries through on all of the dishes, from tender grilled octopus to a saddle of roast local monkfish with mushroom ragout to the signature preparation of salt-crusted branzino for two. It takes 45 minutes to prepare, and it is a stunner in its golden crust. A server cuts it free to be devoured with olive oil, herbs, and lemon. Broiled Maine twin lobster features sweet meat in split shells, lazy man’s luxury. It, too, arrives under a dome, with little pitchers of herb butter and clarified butter, plus a lemon half wrapped in mesh for squeezing. The vegetables on the side — potatoes, beets, mushrooms, squash puree — only seem extraneous until you taste them.
What to drink with this meal? The wine list is substantial, covering much ground and containing many celebratory bottles. Staffers seem to know it front and back. How about a French white on the lower end of the price point that delivers value and is worthy of the food? Our server finds us the perfect bottle of Chablis. Just as important, we feel as cared for and valued as if we’d ordered a $1,300 Meursault. This starts with the warm greeting from general manager Hoshang Dadrass when we enter, and continues through dessert — before which someone not only crumbs our table but covers the unsightly stains we’ve left with fresh, clean napkins.
The last course is lovely and fairly standard, in the chocolate torte/panna cotta/apple tart vein. This is one area where it might not hurt to mix things up a bit. The thing to order is the snow egg, an eye-catching confection of meringue and lemon curd mousse over raspberries with basil syrup, wearing a crown of spun sugar.
Then savor the geometric, caramel-filled chocolates that come with the check. It’s one last nice touch in a night full of them. Ostra is an occasion restaurant even when the occasion is simply a beautiful dinner out with a friend. As we all now know, that’s truly something to celebrate.
1 Charles St. South, Boston, 617-421-1200, www.ostraboston.com.
Wheelchair accessible; no outdoor seating.
Prices Raw dishes $21-$30. First courses $18-$34. Main courses $36-$125. Desserts $14-$18.
Hours Sun-Thu 5:30-9:30 p.m., Fri-Sat 5:30-10 p.m.
Noise level Loud
★★★★★ Extraordinary | ★★★★ Excellent | ★★★ Very good | ★★ Good | ★ Fair | (No stars) Poor