There is no lobster roll on the menu. That is the first thing to know about chef Michael Serpa’s new Back Bay restaurant, Select Oyster Bar. He was previously executive chef at Neptune Oyster, the North End spot that is never not mentioned in Boston’s annual conversation about the best lobster roll in town. How to differentiate your first solo venture from the similar restaurant where you made your name? Omitting the signature dish is a fine start.
What there is is a lobster sandwich, and that only at lunch. It might be the best lobster-sandwich-that-is-not-a-roll I’ve ever had. This is because I like avocado almost as much as I like lobster. The sandwich is fistfuls of fresh, sweet meat on warm, crusty bread with a tangy, guacamole-esque topping and roasted tomato aioli. Lobster rolls are neutral, assertions of one ingredient’s excellence, the package designed to make the star look good. This sandwich has personality, bold, bright, and balanced. It costs $32. Does that mean Neptune’s $27 lobster rolls are now a bargain?
The sandwich is an anomaly, a concession to lunchtime requirements. Most of the time, this is a more highbrow, experimental seafood experience. Select is a slip of a restaurant, located in a Back Bay brownstone, with bistro style and nautical touches: embossed white tiles on the ceiling here, weathered boards there, whale prints on the wall and Edison bulbs hanging above an L-shaped, pewter-topped bar that seats maybe 16. There are also a few two-tops along one wall, and one larger table in front of a bowed brick window that looks onto Gloucester. The place only takes reservations for eight or more. Service is excellent but very casual. Everything, in fact, feels casual, except for the food.
Serpa and chef de cuisine Sebastian Martinez (Volle Nolle) turn out a menu based around fresh catch. Some of the best dishes are found on the specials chalkboard: A sea bream crudo one day matches the clean brine of raw fish with sweet corn puree and thin slices of pickled Persian cucumbers, laid out in a rosette pattern on top. It’s cooling and lovely. There are towers of raw seafood, brimming with oysters and clams, shrimp cocktail, scallop ceviche, and lobster dressed with herbs and lemon. A half-dozen oyster varieties are available shucked with cocktail sauce or a strangely emulsified variant of mignonette.
Some things are very simple: One of my favorite dishes here consists of nothing but fat, whole blue prawns cooked a la plancha with olive oil, lemon, and plenty of salt. A whole roasted sea bream is perfectly juicy, served over roasted fingerling potatoes and fennel, drizzled in a dressing fragrant with Greek herbs. Occasionally the simplicity goes too far. Pan-roasted Maine lobster is topped with spring onions and brown butter, so sweet and tender. But that is all you get on your plate. Still, this is a kitchen that knows how to cook (or not cook) seafood properly.
(And the one non-seafood dish, a rib eye with duck fat potatoes, is pretty fantastic. Who would come here for steak? Ask yourself that again when the gorgeous aroma of one cooking starts to waft up from the kitchen.)
More-complicated dishes shine, too, particularly when they draw on Spanish techniques and flavors. There is a wonderful arroz frito, the grains stained with squid ink, overlaid with roasted cauliflower, cuttlefish, and uni. Octopus tendrils curl up with snap peas and tomatillos, the plate enlivened with chimichurri and the heat of serrano chiles; slices of hamachi seared at the edges come with a pool of brick-orange hazelnut romesco and a blizzard of shaved Brussels sprouts.
A dish called egg salad is an elegant composition of asparagus and fava beans topped with a smoked trout dressing, a sunny side up egg, and a generous dollop of sturgeon caviar. It’s beautiful, greens wreathing the golden yolk and the black orb of caviar. The runny egg demands stirring, but pull the fish eggs out first: The caviar gets lost when mingled with the other ingredients. Bouillabaisse, which features nicely cooked seafood, fails to come together; the broth lacks depth.
Compositions don’t always work — for instance, Arctic char with roasted melon, strained yogurt, cucumber, feta, and oregano, a combination no longer on the menu with good reason. The mushy, warm roasted melon was unappetizing. A black bass “chop,” a special one night, is a generous side of fish, with beautiful mottled skin and bones intact. It’s served with Tuscan kale, haricots verts, fried beech mushrooms, and a sauce made with white wine and bitters. But strawberries mysteriously appear on the plate, a jarring and inexplicable note that throws off all the flavors; they appear to be left over from a sold-out scallop crudo special.
And you know what the dinner menu could really use? A sandwich. It needs something simple and filling to balance all of the lightness. There’s a summery beer list here crying out for a clam roll or some improved version of the Filet-O-Fish.
There’s also a soulful wine list designed to complement seafood, with more reds than one might expect. There are some funky additions, like the Shacksbury cider that tastes remarkably like blue cheese. And cocktails are well constructed, from the Hemingway daiquiri to one called Green Isaac’s Special. Gin, coconut water, bitters, and lime, it is perfectly refreshing.
Select doesn’t serve dessert, but one of the more interesting aspects of the restaurant does come into play at the end of the meal. A 20 percent pre-tax tip is included. The two-part rationale: It allows the staff to focus on hospitality rather than making a buck, and it offers a steady income.
It also puts the diner in an interesting position. Those who wish to tip less than 20 percent — which is the new 15 percent, FYI, whoever you are — must request the service charge be removed. Those who are accustomed to tipping more must then add a few extra dollars, a number so small it makes an act meant to be generous feel miserly. And then there is the plain fact that your already pricey $20 salad is really $24. Your super-simple $35 roasted lobster is really $42. In practice, of course, that’s always the case. But it serves to highlight the weird way we pay for restaurant meals in this country.
That’s not a bad thing. How can operators factor a fair wage into the business of running a restaurant? It’s something anyone fortunate enough to eat out on a regular basis should give a thought to now and again.