When it is good, it is very good.
After all, the Banks Fish House has so much going for it. A seafood-focused concept that seems a natural for Boston. An executive chef and partner, Robert Sisca, who worked at New York’s Le Bernardin, perhaps the most well-regarded fish restaurant in the country. An owner, Himmel Hospitality Group, with a track record of high-level experiences at properties such as Bistro du Midi, Grill 23 & Bar, and Harvest. A prime space, steps away from the T and commuter rail in the Back Bay.
About that space: The Banks Fish House also has a problem of, ahem, scale.
This was previously Post 390, a sprawling farm-to-table tavern that opened in 2009, anchoring 33-story luxury condo tower The Clarendon. Himmel Hospitality Group announced that restaurant’s closure in 2020, opening the Banks in its place a year later. It’s easier to change concept than layout. The restaurant occupies two floors, with several fireplaces. It’s more casual downstairs and more formal up, but neither exactly casual nor exactly formal on either level. The first floor has a bar, a raw bar, and high-top tables; a grand staircase leads up to a small dining room that looks into an open kitchen, along with several private dining rooms. Each space is somewhat sequestered from the others, and the resulting effect is that, no matter how busy the restaurant — sometimes very busy — it feels underpopulated. (It would be an excellent place for after-hours hide-and-seek.) Yet at the same time, when there’s an event or gathering, one can feel both intruder and intruded upon, as camera flashes from someone else’s party light up that built-in two-top by the kitchen. My favorite spot is the first-floor bar, because the staff behind it are personable and knowledgeable, as Himmel Hospitality Group staff routinely are. (On a recent visit, someone repeatedly called me “love” as she bustled past, just because.)
I dwell on all this because the layout makes it genuinely challenging for the Banks Fish House to be the restaurant it wants to be. Is it a casual place for fried clams and lobster rolls? A new-school oyster bar with creative crudo dishes? A formal restaurant with elegant fish dishes and service? The space and aesthetic don’t translate perfectly to any of these, and for a while the menu cast a confusing net around them all. When the Banks retooled recently, it all became clear: Just down the street, sister restaurant Grill 23 is marking 40 years as one of the city’s finest steakhouses. Banks is meant to be its corollary, the surf to its turf — an elevated classic woven into the city’s post-work, business-entertainment landscape.
The Banks 2.0 is a real improvement. The menu is focused and appealing, stocked with raw bar plateaux and crudo dishes, multi-component fish entrees, touches of luxury like caviar and foie gras. There are just enough refined takes on classic seafood-shack fare: clam chowder smoky with pork belly, calamari with banana pepper remoulade (we see you, Rhode Island), a generous lobster roll served hot or cold. There is also some phone-a-friend crossover, in the form of Grill 23 steaks. The connection between the two restaurants is one worth amplifying.
The Banks serves its own osetra caviar, and those not inclined to pay $140 for the full service with garnishes and blini can still have a taste: mother-of-pearl spoonfuls of the glistening eggs, with crème fraiche and chives, for $15. Traditional crabcakes are merged with the Peruvian causa, a cold potato terrine, for an appetizer of contrasting textures, surprisingly and welcomingly spicy. The Banks lobster bake is a glorious profusion: a skillet brimming with lobster, clams, mussels, shrimp, fingerling potatoes, corn, and chorizo, with (for once!) enough slices of bread for dipping into the piquant broth. My favorite dish here is a quieter one: Dover sole meuniere, expertly cooked fish with almonds and brown butter, wonderfully sweet parsnip crema, broccolini, and more fingerlings. It’s pitch-perfect, a modern classic. It captures the spirit of the Banks Fish House at its best.
The kitchen always wants to be that exact, but that is a work in progress. The crabcake causa, a carryover from Banks 1.0, looks more put together than the sloppy version I sampled pre-makeover. An elegant scallop crudo with grapefruit, jalapeno, mint, and cucumber tastes clean and cool, but it is served over shrimp chips gone soggy with the juices. A previous dish of unicorn oysters, topped with pomegranate granita that arrived to the table melted, is sensibly off the menu. So is one of gummy scallops with a random combination of chickpea puree, turnips, broccoli rabe, and citrus. Those beautiful scallops are now served with a suitably springlike risotto, with favas, peas, and morel mushrooms — and both scallops and risotto are now gummy. Squid ink spaghetti with crab, uni, Calabrian chile, and mint sounds zesty and dressy, but the pasta is cloaked in wan cream sauce, tossed with halved grape tomatoes that feel like escapees from the pasta salad at a catered lunch.
The cocktails are balanced, the wine list invites exploration, and the banana cream pie is a massive slab of happiness.
If the Banks had opened back in 2009, when Post 390 did, it would have debuted in a very different landscape. Boston has since seen a surge in seafood restaurants, from tiny, chef-driven spots like Select Oyster Bar to spirited, upscale specialists like Saltie Girl to fine dining in a Le Bernardin mode like Ostra. It is so much harder now to make a splash. Chris Himmel of Himmel Hospitality Group and executive chef Sisca are avid fishermen, passionate about regional seafood, with close personal ties to purveyors like Island Creek Oysters, Snappy Lobster, and Wulf’s Fish. That passion is worth amplifying, too, alongside the Grill 23 pedigree.
When the Banks Fish House is good, it is very good. With more precision and consistency, it could be great.
THE BANKS FISH HOUSE
406 Stuart St., Back Bay, Boston, 617-399-0015, www.thebanksboston.com.
Prices Appetizers $15-$60. Entrees $34-$78. Desserts $12-$17. Cocktails $16-$18.
Hours Dinner Sun 5-9 p.m., Mon-Thu 5-9:30 p.m., Fri-Sat 5-10 p.m. Lunch Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Brunch Sat-Sun 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Noise level Conversation easy.
★★★★★ Extraordinary | ★★★★ Excellent | ★★★ Very good | ★★ Good | ★ Fair | (No stars) Poor