Easy elegance near the shore
Oro an anchor of good taste in Scituate
It’s the time of year when the sea begins to beckon but it’s not yet warm enough to swim. That means a long walk by the water, perhaps a bit of poking around in shops when the chill sets in, and a nice dinner at the end of the day.
When Scituate is your destination, Oro provides a stylish cap to a coastal roam. It has a pleasant seaside feeling without being “too yo-ho-ho,’’ as chef Robin King says by phone. There are no anchor motifs or carved wooden fishermen statues clad in yellow slickers. Decorated in neutrals, with light wood beams and big windows, the room feels bright and airy.
King owns Oro with wife and general manager Jill King. The couple met in the area, then spent time at the former Epiphany in Santa Barbara, Calif. (owned by Kevin Costner), before returning East. Locally, he has cooked at Tosca in Hingham, Mistral, and Stella; she has spent time at Top of the Hub and Aquitaine. The calmer pace of the South Shore called them home again from the city. In the year since they opened Oro, it has become a Scituate hotspot. On weekends, the bar is jammed and every table full.
The water is a hub of recreation in Scituate, but there are still working fishermen here, too. King buys his seafood from the local boats and much of his produce from area farms. Oro’s menu presents an elegant version of New England. Dishes feature clean, classic flavors with a few twists.
Corn chowder is addictively sweet, with salty counterpoints of littleneck clams and Berkshire bacon. Oysters are served with rice wine mignonette and a shot of wonderfully spicy tomato juice, like a liquid version of cocktail sauce.
A beet salad is beautifully composed, a column of greens and goat cheese encircled by crostini, all set atop bright yellow and crimson slivers of beet. Raw tuna and salmon tangle with avocado in a ginger-soy vinaigrette, the acid of the dressing cutting the lushness of the other ingredients. Confit duck leg with crisp skin sits beside a runny poached egg and greens tossed in sherry vinaigrette. It’s an appetizer, but the plate is so generous, it could be a light supper. Oro is not a restaurant where pretty presentation comes at the cost of portion size.
Fish is deftly cooked here. An entree of cod is wrapped in prosciutto, a preparation in which the pork often overwhelms the main ingredient. But the balance is right, and the two complement each other, the prosciutto providing salt that enhances the mild cod. It’s served with tender spaghetti squash. Salmon dishes are often the gustatory equivalent of a yawn, but King roasts his on a cedar plank until it’s just done, juicy and rich. To offset its fatty flesh, there are slivers of grapefruit and a grapefruit-mustard vinaigrette. It’s accompanied by a crisp cake of potato and cauliflower.
If Oro has a defining dish, it’s the crispy Scituate lobster cakes, spheres of bountiful local lobster coated in panko and prepared in the style of crab cakes. Swimming in a bit of lobster bisque, they’re topped with a dramatic burst of crunchy fried sweet potatoes.
Roast chicken is nicely done, topped with a salty olive relish that differentiates it from all the other roast chicken dishes out there; juicy pork loin is served with potato puree and Brussels sprouts, less of a standout than some other dishes but still good.
Steak frites, however, is a real disappointment. The meat is greasy and unappealing, the fries mediocre. There’s no sign of the truffle vinaigrette that’s meant to adorn the dish. The best part is the grilled ramps on the side, the scallion-esque stalks the table’s surest harbinger of spring.
Orecchiette with veal and tomato ragu also falls short — the pallid ragu has too much liquid and lacks the long-simmered flavor one expects. An appetizer of fried artichoke hearts with remoulade tastes all fried, barely any artichoke. And a beautiful carpaccio of spiced lamb isn’t spiced enough; served with lemon aioli, fennel, and pomegranate syrup, the thin slices of meat need salt.
Goat cheese cheesecake is too mild, barely goat-y at all, although components of candied fennel and pecans are lovely. From a dessert called “The Paula Deen,’’ one might expect a stick of butter on a plate adorned with berries. Rather, it’s chess pie, which tastes somewhat like a lemon bar without the lemon; that comes on the side, in the form of lemon sorbet. Warm chocolate pudding cake is good enough to make you forget you’re bored with warm chocolate pudding cake — or maybe that’s accomplished by the salted caramel sauce and Vietnamese coffee ice cream that come with it.
There’s nothing on the wine list that stands out the way, say, the Scituate lobster cakes do on the menu. More-unusual choices would be welcome. A bourbon cooler is nicely balanced, but a standard-issue gin and tonic is not. Many of the house drinks are of the apple- or espresso-flavored variety that embarrasses real martinis in bars around the world.
One evening, our waiter is reserved but professional, tending to our every need. Another night, our waitress is personable but botches the names of most of the selections on a cheese plate, fails to refill our water glasses, and lets us linger so long we almost miss dessert.
But even if Oro isn’t perfect, it can still be the perfect end to a day spent strolling by the sea.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.