Saturday, January 28, 2012

Island Creek Oyster Bar

Island Creek Oyster Bar
When rumors started to percolate regarding the opening of a restaurant featuring Island Creek Oysters in the Fenway neighborhood, I was pretty darn jazzed. Great oysters, great variety of oysters, available within close proximity to my first love, Fenway Park? That's a recipe for perfection. 
The Dining Room
Our first trip to the oyster bar was during late summer of last year, obviously right before a Sox game, and the general atmosphere of the restaurant puts you at ease from the moment you walk in. It's a big space, but with emphasis on all things oysters, and the famous oyster farm down in Duxbury, MA. A single wall to the back is composed of stacked oyster shells, while a far right wall features an oddly upside down photo of the oyster farm, stacks and stacks of crates, and the reflection of workers shimmering on cold New England waters. Of course, the main focus of the restaurant is the oyster bar, prominently positioned in the middle of the restaurant, with heaps of ice, and seemingly endless varieties of carefully harvested and selected oysters. After this first visit, and our fantastic experience here, my bigger half bought me Shucked: Life on a New England Oyster Farm for St. Nicholas Day right before Christmas. Reading this book only again awakened the need to suck down these beauties, and as it's January, the time where oysters build up fat supplies in the cold waters, and likewise the time where they are plumpest and sweetest, we had to make a special stop for brunch at the oyster bar. 
Wall of Oyster Shells
Now, I'm not really a big fan of brunch. I think breakfast kicks ass, and lunch likewise can be the best way to motivate you to get through a workday. However, brunch seems to half-ass the best things of breakfast and lunch in a really bad way. Therefore, I'll have to disclose that the other brunchy items that we had ordered during this meal are probably things you can skip. The chowder tasted a little too creamy and borderline butter cheesy, the film on top a sign that perhaps this was a batch left over from dinner service the night before. Likewise, the cod cakes and the smoked red trout were good, but since they arrived after the oysters, well, it's kind of like the warm up band playing after the headlining act. Therefore, if you are an oyster fan, I would say forgo all other items on the menu and stick to your guns. Spend that extra twenty or so that we foolishly wasted on other items on the big show, and just get a few more oysters. 
Batter Up!
All this being said, the oysters and littlenecks at Island Creek Oyster Bar were spectacular. They obviously have a very specific variety of oysters that have been tasted and tasted and tasted by the restaurant crew and oyster farmers alike, specifically selected for the menu at the restaurant. While I do like kumamotos, and think that they are a fantastic way to dip your toe into the world of oyster consuming, I would stay stick to the New England variety... stay local... because these shellfish haven't traveled very far at all, and freshness is key. Plus, we grow fine oysters in New England. Show your colors. So without further ado, here's a little insight into the oysters we chose, all from Massachusetts:
Island Creeks
1) Island Creeks: These oysters are obviously the ones that gave wing to this entire restaurant. Hailing from an oyster farm and business grown out of Duxbury, Massachusetts, Thomas Keller has called them the perfect, most consistently delicious oyster. These oysters, at first glance, are perfectly shucked, just as all the others are, with a generous amount of liquor still swimming in the neatly placed half shell. A single bite delivers a burst of saltiness, along with that ever satisfying chew that comes with a cold, fresh oyster. With each chew, the oyster also lets out a little bit of sweetness. Island Creek oysters are indeed consistently a treat, and absolutely delicious.
Sunken Meadows
2) Sunken Meadows: These are grown out of Eastham, and at first glance are slightly more plump and fill out the shell a bit better than the Island Creeks. They were super shiny, super juicy oysters, and had a meatiness that just kept going. Due to the fattiness of these plumpers, the sweetness was only balanced by the briny flavors released with every bite. I think that these may have been my favorite of the ones that we tried.
Peter's Points
3) Peter's Points: Peter's Points hail from Onset, Massachusetts, grown in an area known as Fisherman's Cove just off of Cape Cod Canal. They were also very good. They were a bit less salty and meaty than the other oysters that we had tasted thus far, and therefore perhaps a little more sweet. It was a clear bite of another fatty, glucose-rich oyster. The unctuous mouthfeel was just as enjoyable as the previous two varieties. 
Spring Creeks
4) Spring Creeks: Spring Creeks are from Barnstable, Massachusetts, which seems to be an up and coming area to raise oysters. These particular oysters are grown in trays, and then tumbled, a technique used to produce a very deep and round cup. This was actually the first visually stunning things that we noted about the oysters grown in the mud flats around the mouth of Spring Creek. The flavor of the actual oysters were again meaty, but I think that these were the briniest of the variety that we tried. They were salt-bombs, perhaps closest to the flavor of classic Wellfleets, which is always a welcome flavor to enjoy in an oyster tasting. 
Wild Marions
5) Wild Marions: Wild Marions come from Sippican Harbor, and these were the wild card in the bunch that we had ordered. They looked different than the others, with a more elongated shell, shaded slightly red from the mineral-rich waters where they had been grown. As you might anticipate, while these oysters were also salty, they were notably irony and minerally, maybe closer to some of the European oysters that I've had the pleasure of tasting overseas. Definitely worth ordering.
First Lights
6) First Lights: First lights are grown out of Mashpee, an interesting offering from the Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts. After the saltiness of the Wild Marions, these smaller oysters offered up a less in your face brininess and a bit more subtle sweetness to round out our oyster tasting. More like the first two oysters we had tasted, they were chewy, crisp, and light. 
7) Littlenecks: Duxbury has one more trick up its sleeve, dishing out wonderful, chewy, briny and sweet at the end littlenecks. Littleneck clams are a treat to be had, whether steamed up in a big pot of clam bake goodness, or served raw on the half shell, as we enjoyed here. Since they are a bit chewier than oysters, it may take a little bit of coaxing to get a newcomer to slurp up a raw littleneck, but the payoff, as you probably know, is so big. They are just as fatty as the oysters, but with extra meaty mouthfeel and the sweetness throughout. Littlenecks from Duxbury are not to be missed.
I can't emphasize enough what a great restaurant this is to go taste some local oysters. Still located within the heart of the city, but in a large enough space that you have better odds at snagging a seat compared to say Neptune Oyster (also wonderful) in the North End, the restaurant is bustling, loud and exciting. Just go for the oysters, and definitely make a habit of it.

Island Creek Oyster Bar
500 Commonwealth Ave
Boston, MA

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