With a name inspired by the gods and a reputation that follows, one should expect big things from Neptune Oyster in the North End of Boston. The famed oyster bar, owned by Jeff Nace, seats just 18 bar-side and roughly 25 at the tables … which aren’t more than an arms length away from that bar. Judging by the crowd the other night, Neptune’s past accomplishments have earned them quite a bit of business. Unfortunately, not much about the meal leads me to believe the reputation isn’t a bit mythic.
Nestled in a cozy part of Boston that is home to a large Italian population, Neptune’s tight quarters lend themselves well to a place that seems to revel in the hustle and bustle. Acoustically, there isn’t much to appreciate here. The floor to ceiling tiles, packed in tables, and thick crowd make conversation strained at best. It’s a scene; and in that respect, the circumstances dictate that it is a successful one.
Aesthetically, the place reminds one of Atlanta’s Lobster Bar with it’s legs cut off. The limited space prevents the restaurant from having arched ceilings and restricts the patrons’ freedom to rotate; however, the mirrors that double as catch of the day menus, the high quality marble bar, and the touches of fish artwork successfully establish the mood. Your at a slick spot where the casual attire doesn’t damper the “coolness” factor you feel from walking into said “institution.” While the pictures that accompany this post might lead you to believe that lighting is in short supply, I can assure you that’s not the case. While the lighting doesn’t make for good action shots, and it is most definitely soft, you won’t have any trouble when you try to gaze lovingly at your girl (or guy) across the table. Of course, you won’t be able to hear a word they are saying – but we already figured that out.
You need to be on your toes to dine here. Reservations are a no-no and a wait for a table can easily stretch up to an hour (ours came in at just over 73 minutes). If you’re quick with a step, you might be able to squeeze in at the bar. Though there is a line for it, availability there is on a first come – first serve basis.
The menu is slim, trim, and definitely not geared toward the meatatarian in you. Setup by chef Michael Serpa and sous-chef Dan Karg, only two available items were of the land. In addition to a rib-eye, which may or may not be on the menu if you visit, there is a fixture burger identified as the Neptuneburger (more on that in a bit).
Your options come on a single serving whereby the choices are corralled into a few small sections (appetizers, crudos, salads, entrées, and sandwiches). Sitting politely on the side, you’ll find a list of their daily specials, which come in a fixed rotation. For your raw bar order, you are handed a small slip of white paper. That oyster card, similar to what you might see in a sushi bar, includes a list of the available raw bar items. Along with the price/per item, there is a brief description of what to expect from each morsel. Oysters are as complex as wine. As they get much less attention, it’s nice to see Neptune help you with your order.
Regarded for their high-quality fish and eccentric menu touches (sea urchin crostini), Neptune Oyster has everything in place for a quality culinary experience. Unfortunately, based on a single solitary meal, it is hard to see how that reputation has been earned. While the raw bar items are as impressive as you’ll find, the assembled dishes stretch too far and deliver too little.
This go for gold attitude is perhaps most evident in one of their staple dishes: the New England Clam Chowder. A thinner preparation than at say… Legal Sea Food, too many ingredients in the pot created a strange twang to each sip. While my palate recognition wasn’t great last night, I think the added ingredient was thyme. Don’t quote me on that, as someone else out there might be able to correct me. Regardless, you were left with a dish that tried too hard. The clams, for instance, were beyond overdone. I felt like most bites were equivalent to chewing rubber. It’s possible this was just a failure of the evening, but still – the flavors were just muddled.
Also on the table was an order of the stripped sea bass. At $32, the only thing that justified the price was the portion size. Included with the fish were some heirloom tomatoes, pineapple, corn, a few types of green, and sautéed crab. Again, too much going on. With access to those ingredients, there should have been a smaller flavor wheel. I was lost trying to figure out if I should focus on the sweet or the savory. Meanwhile, the grilling job was not perfect. Though cooked somewhat successfully, the dried edges show me a carelessness that shouldn’t happen at a place with these prices. Maybe it was that we were amongst the last orders to come out of the kitchen. Even if the dish were better executed, the ingredients list didn’t inspire. At one point in the past, the sea urchin was served raw and accompanied by fried chickpeas, grilled eggplant, cucumber, mint, and a vinaigrette. While that wasn’t available to us – one can only imagine how difficult it would be to successfully execute a dish of that complexity.
Still, we forge on. The steamed littleneck clams and the Neptuneburger were also frustrating. The clams themselves came served up in a simple butter, garlic, and onion broth. While I commend Neptune for sticking to something classic, the broth was horribly over-seasoned. I’d be inclined to call that broth liquid salt. Indicative of usual preparations or not, surely someone back there would have known better had they simply tasted the base. Screwing up on salt is pretty much unforgivable.
Meanwhile, the burger, which was served up well-done (per the request), didn’t jive. It tasted more like a meatball between two buns (and a bland one at that). The usually included fried oysters were ordered up on the side, but I’m still not inclined to give this one a pass. Burgers are all the rage right now, and I would have expected more flavor in the mixture. Perhaps some brisket would help, who knows? Still, I have to be a little forgiving … after all, the oysters were delicate and delish, while maintaining a creamy texture. In addition, the customer did order the meat to a second death by going well-done. I’ll withhold any definitive comment on the meat pie. For now, proceed with caution.
Equally as frustrating was the order of Ipswich fried clams. While an order ran us $19 at market price, thus making it the one truly reasonable item on the menu, the execution was pretty poor considering how much these are talked up. The mixture of whole belly clams and clam strips was overdone. The bellies had become dried out and the strips were chewy. The tartare sauce did not help. It was overwhelmed with lemon and like the chowder, reached to high. One must ask: Why the strips in the heart of clam country?
For all the failures, the meal was not without its successes, and impressive ones at that. There were nearly a dozen oysters to choose from – and that excited me. Almost always a proponent of less is more, it was nice to have the opportunity to venture outside a three or four choice oyster list. Meanwhile, the diverse selection allowed for playful exploration. After watching the shucker in the front window during our wait, and sampling a dozen oysters, it seems that they are fully capable of a repeat performance. These oysters were fresh, well shucked, and strong samples of their respective varietals.
The lobster roll, equally as impressive, was one of the better examples I’ve found here in New England. Available cold (with mayo) or hot (with butter), we selected the hot’n tasty version. What showed up at the table were whole chunks of lobster in a brioche bun. The supplied butter made the inside of the bun both soft and spongy while giving the lobster an extra-vehicle with which to deliver its fresh sweetness. Ultimately, the lobster roll seems deserving of its long-tail following. It was the only top flight hot item of the night. The rest of it was for the birds.
Still, there are other factors to consider. Service was strong in most respects. The young woman who played holder of the holy list also ran food and took orders. Not once did I see her get short, lose the smile, or even intimate that things weren’t just awesome. However, there was the hair. Yup, that’s right. A small, but distinct hair crept its way into the aforementioned soup. I think it would be shortsighted to get up in arms about that. After all, what are they supposed to do … take a magnifying glass to each dish? The problem was that there was no attempt to make good. We were most surprised to see the $11.00 bowl sitting – full price – on our ticket.
Throw in the hour long wait, the hair in the food, the poor execution of the majority of our order, and I’m just not going to be able to rave about the place. At $220 for 4 people (with just 2 glasses of wine), the meal was shamefully overpriced. You need not show up more than once to figure that out. Sure, return visits may reap rewards; however, I don’t see them justifying the price point anytime soon.
That said, I am as optimistic about the oysters and the lobster roll as I am pessimistic about the remainder of the experience. Often identified as arguably the best spot for a higher-end seafood experience, it seems you will leave happy if you are willing to fight the crowds and focus on the mainstream items. Get adventurous while ordering, then you’re likely to get a rude wake up call in mediocrity. I guess it’s important to remember that this impression was from just one sampling, but you’ve been warned. Little of the accolades, if any, seem to extend beyond the raw bar or the wine list … and it seems we now know why. The rest of the food just ain’t that great.
Safety Tip: Parking is horrendous. I’d recommend the parking lot on Cooper just around the block. However, when we returned at 11 to grab our car, we found no one in the vicinity and our car unlocked with the keys inside. I kid you not! At any price, that’s a no go for this guy. Park there, keep your keys.