Boston: Island Creek Oyster Bar

It's on One for the Table

Let's Eat by Kitty Kaufman, photos by Julie Moffatt and Christine Smith

Island Creek wine Since 2010, Island Creek Oyster Bar's holding the corner at 500 Commonwealth in Kenmore Square. Any time after four, you find 175 of the happiest people in town. When I go by on my walk, it's packed and it isn't 7:30. It's five o'clock and it's busy, busy. I call on Monday morning to reserve two seats at the bar. Good thing I do. Even for the bar you need a reservation, even on Monday.

Something's happening as soon as you walk in. The maître d' is happy to see you, always. Even when there's a concert at Fenway. Even on Derby Saturday. Even when there's a ballgame or a concert. Even when 30 others are milling around the desk. I don't know how they do it. It's training. Island Creek staff gets trained starting with the fishery. Everyone spends a day working Island Creek's oyster farm in Duxbury. Yes, they grow their own and most of everyone else's too. (Later, when I ask what's in the gribiche that comes with crab cake, the bartender lists all the ingredients.) The staff's been to culinary as well as charm school. I don't know how they do it.

ICObar Oysters are us. The menu lists not only where they're from but who grew them: Island Creek owner Skip Bennett raises in Duxbury. Cape provenance: Barnstable, Dennis, Eastham, Plymouth, Wellfleet, Chatham. Out of state varieties come from Virginia and Washington State. Everyone at the bar has oysters. Of course.

The shellfish ragoût (lobster ravioli, shrimp, calamari and mussels) is in lobster broth. French bread's for mopping and when it's gone, order the puff pastry biscuit that's layered and drizzled with honey like baklava. It's something and I don't like honey. People come just for the biscuit. Well, and the oysters. It could be dessert. Andrew, our bartender who remembers us from another day, pours Michel Delhommeau Muscadet.

Island Creek soupp Monday, the house serves potato leek soup with brown butter and lobster knuckles. It's serious soup in a vegetable base with a touch of cream. You could, if you want, make a meal of it with oyster sliders and a pour of Nino Franco Rustico prosecco, clean with touches of peach. I know what happens. You watch oysters going by and you have to have them too. Oysters and beer at the bar are my go-to and you have to see this bar. It's glass-backed and six shelves high. At the top I think there are lobster traps but maybe not. (Must get the name of their decorator.) Since I wrote this, I no longer drink beer. You can, of course. I've moved on to margaritas. If Victoria or Bobby or Christian or Lee Ann are on the bar, ask for a margarita. It need not be Cinco de Mayo. Like mint juleps: have one with or without the horses.

Two guys shucking don't stop. Paul, our Monday server, keeps an eye on the bar without breaking a sweat. He's full of surprises and suggests Reissdorf Kölsch beer for me. It's poured in its own glass, tall and thin, that keeps this light tasting beer icy cold. It matches my Louisiana catfish. I've been a catfish fan but it turns out I haven't had it until I have it here, Southern style with blue grits, tasso ham and rapini. (The next day I have leftovers straight from the fridge and it's still a knockout). Maybe they'll bring back that catfish sometime soon.

Virginia striped bass is served with black rice and fresno, a mild chili pepper. Julie's eaten the whole thing already. This is her first time and she's taken with the shells decor and sound baffles to keep the noise in hand. You can hear yourself think. Although there are tunes, it's not blasting mostly. I hear Chattanooga Choo Choo and the Mamas and the Papas. Then we hear jazz that's loud enough for us to notice. As it turns out, the music's paired with mood and crowd. It works.

photo courtesy Island Creek

Island Creek lobster roll Whites: Pierre Péters Grand Cru Blanc de Blanc, Simonnet-Febvre Sauvignon Blanc, Leitz Out Riesling, Domaine Bonneau du Martray Grand Cru, Domaine J A Ferret Pouilly-Fuissé, Jean-Marc Pillot Chassagne-Montrachet. Reds: Santa Barbara Pinot Noir, Perrini Salento Rosso, Vietti Castiglione Falletto Barolo, Sinskey Los Carneros Pinot Noir Napa, Krutzler Perwolff Blaufränkisch Bergenland, Domaine Daniel Rion Vosne-Romanée. We're glad there's prosecco left to wash down the house ganache right before we leave.

Beer notes are longer than the wine listings. They start with Maine (Mean Old Tom American Stout and Pilsner), Nantucket (Sankaty Light Lager), Westport (Pretty Things Saison Americain), New York (Brooklyn Belgian Ale) and Delaware (Dogfish Head IPA). Moving west, Minnesota (21st Amendment pale ale and Black IPA), and Colorado (Left Hand Stout, Avery IPA, English Brown Ale), California (American Porter). Belgium (golden ale, Dupont Farmhouse ale, Tripel) Germany (Kölsch, Hefeweizen, Weizenbock). And with beer, I want more oyster sliders that give sliders back their good name.

fishes We like ICOB's commitment to sustainability; they choose fish that's "caught or harvested . . . hook and line or by hand." Still, they're able to offer a variety of oysters from both Coasts. Their wines salute the grower as well as the winemaker plus there's an ICOB pilsner from Westport, MA by Will Shelton.

Conviviality at the bar big time. Each time we go, everyone on either side or standing behind talks to us. Mostly, except when they don't. It's like being in a club, this bar. One busy Friday night we get the last two seats and I get chatting with a woman standing next to me. We introduce ourselves and it's okay I ask her what she's drinking. It's a cocktail they made just for her. She offers me a taste and yes, I take it. Wouldn't you?

Update December 2020: It's closed in Kenmore Square. So very sad. So is their Eastern Standard Kitchen and Hawthorne, the bar, all on the same block. The boys, who were their landlords, are piggy I suspect. No surprise there. You can find the other Island Creek Oyster Bar in Burlington. Thank goodness.

Island Creek Oyster Bar
500 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
617. 532. 5300
© April 15, 2013 for One for the Table - Kitty Kaufman is a Boston writer. See more of food adventures at Corporate Edge and follow Kitty on Twitter
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