Another new restaurant in the North End hardly sounds like news. After all, the narrow streets of one of Boston's oldest sections are crammed with eateries, one after another along Salem and Hanover streets. Why trumpet another?
Neptune Oyster, so tiny that diners along the 26 banquette seats and the 16 bar stools sit nearly literally cheek-to-cheek, is worth crowing about. There are the oysters, of course, up to 12 varieties. There are other dishes, too, like a great lobster roll and a delicious salmon filet with bits of crispy duck confit and pea tendrils. There is the look of the place, old but new with a marble-topped bar, tin ceilings, and a minimalist aesthetic. There is a wide and very interesting selection of wines, especially those by the glass.
But most of all, Neptune Oyster is just cool.
Even on a snowy February night, the place is beckoning. A young woman in a long apron stands in the window shucking oysters. When I push into the restaurant, the murmur of voices along the bar and the hostess' greeting immediately warms me. The room is packed, so I wait a few minutes until a couple leaves and I can snag a stool at the bar while I wait for a friend to join me. This is my second visit. The first time we concentrated on the food: lovely oysters from Nova Scotia, Martha's Vineyard, and the West Coast; a beautifully made mussel salad with julienned fennel and a light, tangy dressing studded with pistachios; the red snapper entree, perfectly cooked, with big, cracked green olives and nuggets of roasted garlic.
Now I drink in the feeling of the place. A terracotta bust of Neptune, Roman god of the sea, crowns the mirrored wall where the oysters and other raw bar selections, such as littlenecks and shrimp cocktail, are listed. A bartender takes orders for wine, offering tastes first, if desired. Waitresses hurry between the little kitchen at the rear and the dark wooden tables in the dining room. A little stone nymph looks down on diners from the corner, seemingly bemused by the bustle. It's where I want to be on this wintry evening.
Jeff Nace and his wife, Kelli, opened Neptune Oyster last November in a space that had been home to a series of restaurants. After 12 years as beverage manager of Olives in Charlestown and a longtime resident of the North End, Nace says in a phone interview that he knew he wanted a restaurant with an Old World feel concentrating on New England seafood. He chose David Nevins, a graduate of Olives and Kingfish Hall, as his chef. Although many of Nevins's dishes have an Italian slant, this cuisine is much more eclectic. There are also plenty of non-seafood dishes, including a beef tenderloin with beef ragu, a variety of burgers, and roasted chicken breast with oyster stuffing.
In addition to the raw bar selections, Nevins features a crudo, or raw special, each day. If you've decided you've had it up to here with salmon, considered the chicken breast of the sea by many caterers, you should try his crudo of smoked and raw salmon. Chopped smoked salmon with celery and feathery mache is molded over a puddle of scallion cream, and over all this lie strips of raw salmon topped with beads of salmon caviar. I take a bite and the delicate flavor of the salmon caviar washes over my tongue, followed by the stronger taste of the smoked salmon and the pungent scallions. But there's something else in there, too, crunchy with a nutty taste. My companion and I puzzle over it for a moment and then ask the bartender. "Crisped risotto," he replies. Later, on the phone, Nevins explains that he partly cooks and then sautes arborio rice, the kind used in risotto, to create the intriguing crunchy element in the salad.
Those notes of culinary creativity turn up in many dishes. An appetizer of lightly breaded and gently fried plump oysters top a celery salad that is mostly the frondy tips, which offer a delightful (and unexpected) taste of the vegetable, along with some heady bleu cheese dressing. A sardine sandwich is a special one evening, the grilled sardines layered with hard-boiled egg, capers, salami, and mustard on crusty bread. It's not for the faint-hearted, but it's fantastic for those who, like me, love gutsy flavors.
Cioppino, with a spicy and complex tomato-based broth, has the usual ingredients of fish and shellfish along with a scoop of saffron-scented rice. Shellfish outnumbers the chunks of white fish filets, but the fact that those are grilled gives the stew an interesting, slightly toasty flavor.
An entree of scallops features bivalves that are seared to be perfectly glazed and slightly sweet on the outside, but creamy inside and sprinkled with pork cracklings, showing, as with the salmon filet, the chef's interest in mixing divergent meat and fish flavors and contrasting textures. The other elements on the plate are a dense brick of pumpkin bread, which tastes fine but doesn't really fit too well with the scallops, and thin green beans strewn across the top of the scallops.
That makes me think of the few detrimental points in what is a smashing little restaurant. A green salad or two would be nice to offset all the fish. The oyster stew is not the usual creamy sort but a minestrone with vegetables -- an appealing change, or would have been if oregano hadn't drowned out the other flavors. I'd like espresso on the menu, but you have to respect North End restaurateurs for skipping coffee and desserts and sending patrons off to the neighborhood coffee shops. And though the noise, with the restaurant's pretty tiled floors and hard surfaces, is understandable, turning down the music a little would lessen the clamor. (The music might be a carryover from Olives, where the rock 'n' roll never ends.)
Nevertheless, I'd return again and again to savor the oysters as they change through the seasons, to see what Nevins has created for specials, and to drink in the ambience. In a North End beginning to reawaken now that the tangle of expressway ramps and roadways are gone, Neptune Oyster gleams like a pearl.