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My first meal at Island Creek Oyster Bar -- not great

Island Creek Oyster Bar has been a darling of this board since the day it opened, but for a variety of not very good reasons, and notwithstanding that I have been beating the drum forever about the fact that Boston was in desperate need of a higher end seafood restaurant, I hadn't made it to ICOB until last night.

Last night I found myself with an unexpected free night, so I decided it would be the perfect opportunity to see if I could get a seat at the bar at ICOB to see what the fuss was all about. Everything was going perfectly: no traffic on the drive from Cambridge, no hassle (and free) parking on Deerfield St., and the last seat at the bar when I walked in the door.

The menu is beautiful, with virtually everything sounding appealing. I really wanted the fried clams -- haven't had any in a long time -- but since this was my first visit, I didn't want to make any decisions without soliciting advice from the staff. Paul at the bar ("is a friend of mine, he gets me my drinks for free"; if he got the reference, he showed no humor about it; maybe he's heard it too often) touted the oysters (of course), but also said the oyster sliders were a "signature item." As for the entrees, he raved about the lobster roe noodles. If I wanted something lighter, he suggested the halibut with whole grain mustard spaetzle, grilled red onions and fava beans.

I liked the sound of the halibut, and paired it with a duo of oyster sliders and a glass of delicious (and strong) Belgian ale. The oysters were delicious, albeit without a lot of "oysterness" to them. Certainly for those wanting a more intense briny experience, raw oysters are the way to go, but perhaps the combination of generously buttered and grilled brioche buns, lime chile aioli and tabasco sauce (I can't eat fried seafood without tabasco sauce!!) overwhelmed the poor little bivalves. Yet they were delicious nonetheless, and when my plate was cleared, I commented that I thought I wanted another dozen of them. A good start to my meal!

Next came the halibut, the most disappointing part of my meal. The moment my fork touched the fish, I knew it was overcooked. Instead of yielding to the slightest touch of my fork, the fish required firm pressure to penetrate it. And while it wasn't completely devoid of moistness, it just wasn't what it should have been. If I were the type to send food back to the kitchen, this would have been the time. (We could, of course, have a many-post-long debate on sending food back to the kitchen, but irrespective of your position on the matter, my view is that this piece of fish never should have come out of the kitchen in the first place. Although I have no training in professional cooking, I have to imagine that any well trained line cook would know by the firmness of this piece of fish that it was overcooked.) The spaetzle was fine, although probably overcooked, too, and the whole grain mustard flavor was perhaps too subtle.

For dessert, I ordered the donuts with lavender pastry cream and red berry coulis. They were very nice, but would have been much better if served warm. (They were served at room temperature with refrigerator cold filling.) Like the mustard flavor with my fish, I found the lavender flavor of the filling to be too subtle (although I'm willing to admit that I might not be the best judge of these things, as I constantly overwhelm my taste buds with rivers of hot sauce, strong beers, and strong coffees). Also the red berry coulis smacked to me of the sauce that gets served with the cliche flourless chocolate cake with raspberry sauce; my view is that a velvety chocolate sauce would be a great improvement.

I'm sorry if I sound overly critical. I enjoyed my overall experience -- the vibe of the place, the service, the action at the bar -- and certainly will go back. But it wasn't as good as I expected, and unless my future experience demonstrates that my meal was an anomaly, I'll go back to lamenting the lack of good, higher end seafood restaurants in Boston.

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  1. i've also never been a fan of their fish (which i described as overcooked in my post when they opened), or the lobster roe noodles. I go mainly for their raw bar, fried food, and drinks (not necessarily in that order :) I find the seafood much more reliable at Bergamot, where at least they dont overcook it.

    1. they keep changing the sauce served with the donuts. The first time I went, it was caramel sauce and it was perfect. Then the last time I believe it was a pumpkin butter sort of thing which was okay but not as good.

      I wish they'd go back to caramel!

      1 Reply
      1. re: ChinaCat

        Yes, caramel (and warm donuts) would've been nice!

      2. Over/under cooking, while regrettable, happens. You weren't at a Michelin 3 star type place, so on occasion food cooked like that is occasional going to come out of the kitchen. Your only recourse is to send it back. If you are dining solo, you don't even need to worry about messing up the cadence of your DCs. Sorry you had a bad experience. Our experiences at ICOB have been very good (not anything to gush about), except for on Sox game days when it is a crap shoot.

        4 Replies
        1. re: Gabatta

          While I hear what you're saying, this is a place that specislizes in fish and charges a price point where poor execution should be a very rare occurrence. That said, my sample (n=1) is not large enough to make any generalizations, other than to say that overlooked fish at ICOB should be an exceedingly rare occurrence, irrespective of their lack of Michelin (or any other) stars. I'm not going to judge them a bad restaurant based on this single experience, but it was a disappointment. I absolutely will give them another shot. Soon. It is a place I'd really like to like.

          1. re: Blumie

            agree totally. if they overcook my haddock dinner at courthouse for 13USD because they are slammed, ok. if they are charging more than twice that ANYWHERE ,especially at a place that considers itself one of the top 3 or 4 seafood places in Boston, it should come out dead perfect.

            but then what do i know, i cant discern the difference between the 27usd seafood dinner at morse seafood in the south end, which looks to me able to feed a basketball team and the same 27usd for the lobster roll at neptune oyster. everybody's got their thing.

            1. re: hyde

              Fortunately, you could buy the $14 lobster salad roll at Morse and compare directly to the $25 roll at Neptune.

            2. re: Blumie

              Russell house tavern is another place that does fish better than ICOB and they don't even claim to be seafood specialists.

          2. I've probably had 4-5 meals now at Island Creek and they have all been good to very good but none that I would describe as excellent. One time it was a service issue (the dreaded team of waiters instead of one waiter assigned to your table) and another time I ordered wrong. The only items I have had that I would describe as outstanding are the fresh oysters, the oyster sliders and the lobster roe noodles. Perhaps I got a bad batch but I did not care for their fried clams.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Gordough

              Had brunch there yesterday and definitely had service issues, like: hovering over us while we were eating our oysters to get us to order our bruch items (place was not full), when we did order and waited and waited until we flagged down the waiter to check out where our order was - came out immediately (clearly had been sitting in the kitchen) and finally haveing to flag down the hostess to get our bill processed. The fresh oysters were great but the rest of food was good but not worth a special trip.

            2. Next time try the arugula salad with pickled rhubarb, pistachios and pecorino. Salad perfection.

              1 Reply
              1. re: peelmeagrape

                Lineage is pretty much the same cast & crew and for my money, the fish is better cooked. It's smaller and smarter food.