It used to be one of Boston’s most puzzling restaurant riddles. What is everywhere and nowhere at once? Answer: All of the great seafood restaurants.
There was Legal, there was Summer Shack, there were Neptune and B&G, and . . . not much else. Yet the sparkling bounty of New England waters appeared on every fine local menu. To eat good seafood, one just had to go to a good restaurant. Everyone served it. Few specialized.
That last part has changed. From Mare Oyster Bar in the North End to Ostra in the Theatre District, new restaurants focusing on seafood have opened steadily in recent years. If anyone is responsible for simultaneously stoking and demonstrating the city’s hunger in this regard, it is the people at Island Creek Oysters. The Duxbury farm seeded Boston with its namesake bivalves, then begat the instantly popular Island Creek Oyster Bar in Kenmore Square.
In November, the team behind that oyster bar — Island Creek’s Skip Bennett and Shore Gregory, restaurateur Garrett Harker, and chef Jeremy Sewall — opened another, Row 34. (Eastern Standard and Lineage are also sister restaurants.) In Fort Point, it is named after a kind of oyster raised at the farm.
The owners refer to Row 34 as a “workingman’s oyster bar.” This neighborhood seems to bring out the blue-collar sentiment in people. When Barbara Lynch opened the nearby bar Drink, she said it would be the kind of place construction workers would come for a beer and a shot. It isn’t, and the workingmen at Row 34 talk IPOs and stock options. If the place is supposed to hark back to rough-and-ready establishments of a prior century, where laborers drank beer and slurped oysters after breaking their backs all day, well, oysters have come up in the world. But Row 34 is relaxed, loose, and loud, a happy place with great food and even better beer.
The requisite starting point of a visit here is oysters, gorgeous, fresh, and bracing, with offerings from Island Creek and not too far beyond. They are served on ice with just the right amount of embellishment: lemon, cocktail sauce, a classic
mignonette, and a delightful spicy version with Southeast Asian flavors. This last truly complements the shellfish; it’s rare to find a departure from the customary that doesn’t seem like riffing for riffing’s sake.
Chef de cuisine Francisco Milan and crew smoke and cure seafood. The best way to sample the results is to order a board for the table. (It is priced per person, but the smallest is enough to share.) The kitchen chooses the selections — anything from (bland) tilefish terrine to smoked scallops to uni toast.
Recently lettuce wraps have busted out of P. F. Chang’s, appearing around town stuffed with shrimp or charcuterie. Here, the leaves are folded around crisp battered oysters, each bite refreshing, hot and cool at once, with welcome acid from pickled vegetables. Along with shrimp sliders, these are fun little snacks to have with drinks, if not entirely memorable.
But there are dishes on the menu that will haunt diners with cravings for weeks and months to come. It is hard to imagine anyone who loves crab not wanting to order Row 34’s deviled crab toast on every visit. The meat is touched with paprika, with an added crunch from celery. But mainly one gets luxurious mouthful after mouthful of sweet crab.
Lobster rolls are also excellent, whether warm and buttered or lobster pound traditional, cold and creamy. There is plenty of meat, allowed to shine with limited dressing, on a light, toasted bun. It’s not a visit to Maine, but it might be the next best thing.
Addictively chewy, thick strands of house-made bucatini come in a bowl with clams and crisp bits of bread, the whole dish briny and fragrant with garlic. It is another to order again and again. Each day brings a different whole fish preparation; recently, whiting were cooked perfectly, flesh moist, simple and essential. We picked them to the bone.
Not every dish hits the mark. Grilled razor clams one night are tough, served with bone marrow butter and bacon. Fried clams have wonderful flavor, but the batter is soggy. A side of roasted cauliflower with pecorino and anchovy is entirely lacking in anchovy taste. But for the most part, the food at Row 34 is vastly enjoyable, delicious and uncomplicated. And for dessert, there is pudding — butterscotch, chocolate, or lemon. Kid food, to be sure, but what of it.
The restaurant is industrial and striking, monochrome, with brick and steel and weathered wood beams. Eating at a table is pleasant, although servers can hover at times. The real party is at the bar, where one gets the full, convivial Row 34 experience. Here, staffers are frenetically busy yet interact with everyone in a genuine way and ensure they have what they need. The wine list is stocked with enticing selections — fresh, crisp Simonnet-Febvre Chablis by the glass, seafood-friendly Tikves Rkaciteli from Macedonia and Damien Laureau’s intriguing “Le Bel Ouvrage” Savennieres among the bottles of white, a smaller roster of reds for those who will order flat iron steak or bacon cheddar burgers (top with fried oysters if you wish).
But what really makes Row 34 stand out is the beer program. There are 24 draft lines, and offerings change frequently. If you enjoyed Stone Brewing Co.’s perfectly fresh Enjoy By 2.14.14 IPA, well, don’t expect to do so again on your next visit. This just means you will get to try a wild ale from Germany, an Italian spiced ale, a rye beer, or a Belgian pale ale instead. Megan Parker-Gray is the curator of these riches, and she is an engaging, informative tour guide through the list.
The city now has a fair share of seafood specialists. For a great time, fueled by great food and great beer, Row 34 is hard to beat.
★★★★ Extraordinary ★★★Excellent ★★ Good ★ Fair (No stars) PoorDevra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.