Ostra, a luxurious seafood restaurant
The china pattern is Bernardaud’s Ecume, which means “foam” in French. It is white, with a circumference of lacy bubbles that resemble a wave washing ashore. These dishes are used at New York’s most acclaimed seafood restaurant. When they appear on a table in the Theatre District here, it is hard to believe it is a coincidence. Ostra wants to be Boston’s Le Bernardin. On many nights, it succeeds.
Ostra is the latest opening from Columbus Hospitality Group, also behind the likes of Sorellina and Mistral. This restaurant aims for a new level of sophistication. Austere as an iceberg, it has white walls and tablecloths, with large-scale black-and-white photographs of rocky shores and sea hanging on the walls. An open kitchen provides a glint of steel, fronted by an ice-filled case of gleaming whole fish. Caramel leather banquettes are the rare warm accent; jellyfish-like pendant lights offer a touch of whimsy. In the lounge area, there is live piano music. Everything is carefully chosen — ridged utensils with real heft, chargers with a horseshoe crab pattern so stylish one is sorry to see them whisked away, dishes arriving at the table under metal cloches.
The food, from chef-owner Jamie Mammano and executive chef Mitchell Randall, is suitably elegant. Briny oysters from Cape Cod and Duxbury come on ice with a tray of accompaniments — lemon, cocktail sauce, mignonette, and Tabasco — in miniature vessels. Grilled octopus is smoky and tender, served with slivers of raw onion and capers in lemon and olive oil. Pieces of raw hamachi are interspersed with citrus segments and scattered with microgreens, jalapeno oil and chiltepin pepper warming the cool flavors.
A sea bass tartare is both light and luxurious. Bites of raw fish are formed into a round held together by truffle aioli and topped with thin, fragrant shavings of black truffle; crisp fennel crostini are served on the side. It looks ethereal and tastes wonderful. When it is on the table, no one has eyes for other dishes.
For pure, all-get-out luxury, there are tender, tiny ricotta gnocchetti sharing a bowl with sweet Maine lobster meat, delicate beech mushrooms, and more black truffles. On an evening one wants to be really nice to oneself, order this first course with a glass of Champagne. It is the black-tie event of suppers.
The menu honors seafood, with a note expressing “our sincerest appreciation to the following fish mongers who make it possible for us to serve the highest quality of seafood available worldwide.” The purveyors listed are almost all from New England, and the fish at Ostra is indeed sparkling. It is showcased to great effect in two defining dishes.
Sea bream is wrapped in radicchio trevisano and grilled. The leaf keeps in moisture and flavor. Herbs are snipped on top, and there is but a drizzle of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon to augment the fish. Seasonal vegetables are served on the side. The focus is entirely on the bream, and it is simply lovely.
A salt-crusted Mediterranean sea bass is a very similar dish, except that it serves two and the fish arrives baked in a golden shell. A staff member frees it, plates it, and brings it to the table. Again, there is nothing to distract from the star of the show beyond olive oil, lemon, and herbs.
But as gloriously fish-fetishizing as these preparations are, they can leave one hungry for more. Literally. The wallet leaves light, too. Ostra’s prices can be as breathtaking as its food. The sea bass for two, for example, is $90. It may pain the aficionado of whole fish — the picker of bones, the nibbler of cheeks, the slurper of eyeballs — to see neat fillets come to the table while imagining the wasted treasure that remains buried under the salt crust.
Certainly, there are heartier orders: lamb osso buco and chicken, grilled prime filet mignon and sirloin, for those who steer clear of seafood. A pan of paella one evening is a corrective for anyone who has ever had a dull rendition of this dish, which is likely everyone who has ever ordered it. Short-grain Spanish rice, golden with saffron, is firm and flavorful, with the crunchy bottom layer that is one mark of well-made paella. It comes with a riot of ingredients — lobster, shrimp, mussels, clams, octopus, squid, chicken drumettes, and chorizo — each cooked for the proper time.
Lobster here is a 3-pounder, served with roast cauliflower, squash, broccolini, and a sauce of herbs and butter. The winter vegetables pair surprisingly well with the sweet tail and claw meat.
Many of Ostra's dishes are special, but they aren’t all equally so. A salad of beautifully cut, crisp vegetables — snow peas, radishes, sunchokes — makes one feel spring is on the horizon, but it tastes merely pleasant. Halibut with garlic whipped potatoes, mushrooms, and porcini broth is bland, although the fish is nicely cooked. And the paella that is so stunning on one visit features overcooked rice and no crisp grains the next.
Dessert, though, is consistent, from the simple — rice pudding brulee, crackling on top, served with plump raisins on the vine — to the ornate. The “snow egg” features a pillow of meringue atop plump raspberries with lemon curd mousse, basil syrup, and a crown of spun sugar that is stunning if sharp in the mouth. Chocolate hazelnut cremeux is a rectangle of silky mousse with popcorn-flavored ice cream, a drizzle of salted caramel, and an explosive surprise: pop rocks. Executive pastry chef Jennifer Luna is a talent, and it is a pleasure to find a restaurant invested in its sweets.
Columbus Hospitality Group is known for service, and it is no surprise to find Ostra's polished and attentive, if with a few rough patches in the restaurant’s early days. Ordering wine, our table is never offered the assistance of a sommelier, and that is a shame. With a list that includes both reasonably priced Burgundies and high-end Spanish reds, guidance would be welcome. What differentiates three Chablis in the same price range from one another? We aren’t always able to get a helpful answer from our server.
Boston now has plenty of casual places at which to enjoy local seafood. There is still a void, however, when it comes to occasion restaurants. Ostra helps fill that. If one wants to impress a client or celebrate a milestone, this is where to come, with a caveat. The noise level is an outright conversation killer. It is the restaurant’s weakest point.
Ostra is elegant, expensive, and just a few dishes and decibels away from world-class.
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