Fresh catch in the North End
Everything looks right at Mare Oyster Bar. Patrons are shoulder to shoulder at the bar and knee to knee at the tables, which are only a slender leg’s worth of space apart. The lighting is just low enough, and the floor-to-ceiling windows that stand in for walls are open to the breeze. It’s a fine night in the North End. Shellfish line a bed of gleaming ice, on tantalizing display. Chic women teeter past on their way to the restroom, turning to check out the oysters. They are wearing their shuck-me pumps.
But everything does not work right at Mare Oyster Bar. The table reserved for eight becomes available at 8:30. Orders are taken at 9. It is another half-hour before oysters arrive. Some tables have bread; others never will. There are long stretches between each course. A server may, at long last, apologize for the pace of the meal. But he won’t offer a complimentary appetizer. Or a crust of bread.
Mare Oyster Bar is a remake of restaurateur Frank DePasquale’s Mare Natural Coastal Italian Restaurant. DePasquale also operates Bricco, Umbria Prime, and Splash, among others. In February, he closed the restaurant, renovated (Mare’s ugly LED lighting has been replaced by mirrors and televisions), ditched the unwieldy name, and added a new focus: oysters. Considering the success of Neptune Oyster in the same neighborhood, this was not at all a bad idea.
And the oysters are beautiful, sparklingly fresh, correctly shucked, swimming in their liquor without shell shards or grit. They are served simply, with lemon wedges, mignonette, ketchup, and horseradish. With one or two exceptions, the rotating selection draws from New England: briny Wellfleets, metallic Belons and plump Bagaduces from Maine, and more.
There are other fine moments on executive chef Greg Jordan’s menu — the charred, tender tendrils of octopus in a salad with greens and slices of purple potato; the astonishingly good fries, perfectly crisp and greaseless on the exterior, with creamy insides. But too many dishes aren’t as good as they ought to be.
Many tables order the pizzetta di mare, a miniature pizza topped with tomato sauce, calamari, shrimp, and scallops. There is plenty of seafood, but it’s overcooked and underseasoned, and the pizzetta’s thin crust is tough.
Tube-shaped paccheri are served with lobster, garlic, and marinated artichokes, the delicate flavors drowned out by tomato sauce. The dish needs salt. Much better is angel hair pasta, made at DePasquale’s nearby pasta shop, not al dente but otherwise nicely prepared — with a light lemon flavor, tossed with arugula, cherry tomatoes, and garlic crema, with seared scallops flanking the pasta. The dish is comforting and refreshing at once.
Neptune Oyster’s lobster roll, served hot or cold, is famed in this city. Mare offers a similar item — hot with herbed butter or cold with lemon mayonnaise, on a brioche bun. The hot one might be better if dishes arrived in a timely fashion. As it is, it’s lukewarm, the butter beginning to congeal. It does come with those wonderful fries, however, which are served piping.
Zuppa di mare features plenty of mussels, clams, scallops, and half a lobster in a little metal casserole — Mare never stints on seafood, just on salt, and is overly generous with cooking times. The lobster is dry, and the bland tomato broth packs a whimper.
Stuffed lobster is an impressive beast, split open and lying on its back. It is a fine rendition of this dish, if a bit heavy on the stuffing. Its market price the night we order it is $65. Mare also offers prime rib eye for about $50; it’s the fattiest I’ve ever had. At such prices, main courses ought to shine. At Mare, the midrange is more satisfying.
Desserts include a towering slice of tiramisu cake, dry bread pudding with figs and chocolate, cannoli, and more. Cocktails suit the menu nicely — an Aperol spritz, a too-tart lemon drop made with limoncello — and beer offerings range from Peroni to Dogfish Head brews and Allagash White. There is a well-considered wine list with plenty of midrange, food-friendly bottles, many from Italy. A section labeled “from the vault” holds higher-price bottles with prestigious labels, but also some in the $60-$70 range. There are several sake selections on offer, perhaps with an eye toward the tourists who will be arriving on Japan Airlines’ new direct flight from Tokyo.
Servers are pleasant but overextended — sometimes out of breath, with a wild look in their eyes. The kitchen seems to leave them hanging.
Mare is the North End’s second great oyster bar — come here for a dozen on the half-shell and a glass of prosecco and you will be happy, if you don’t mind the wait. Mare could be a great all-around seafood restaurant. It all comes down to timing. There’s nothing like waiting a painfully long time for food that’s merely fine. Particularly when your table is one of the ones without bread.