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SAUCE

At B&G Oysters, each bite is a pearl

Email|Print| Text size + By Wesley Morris and Amy Graves
September 12, 2003

B&G Oysters Ltd., the small, action-packed South End raw bar, opened last Friday in a former creperie. We figured the new owners would have no trouble outdoing the former occupants (one time we found a shoelace in our crepes suzette), but by the looks of it, they've gone over the top.

We walked in, it seemed, on an uptown house party at somebody's slick studio apartment. The kitchen is wide open for ogling, and the spiral staircase that leads to the john and the dish room is a good place to get cozy with the wait staff. Miles of marble and mosaic tiles in oceanic colors (cobalts, steam-grays) suggest a Riviera cottage. And there's an adjacent gravel-lined, below-sea-level lot that will eventually serve as a seasonal dining area.

A warning: Appearing as a party of four can be hazardous to your experience. We arrived as a trio that grew into a quartet, which is when we found that, as warm and accommodating as the staff is, there's no room for squares at Barbara Lynch's summer shack.

A handful of little black tables are flush against the wall -- perfect for Martha to have lobster rolls with the Vandellas, but not so good if Gladys wanted mussels with her Pips. Although, if you're Gladys, there's always room for you and the boys at the bar, which is where we sat. And it's the best seat in the house.

The whole place is chic and cramped but somehow never crowded, with people standing around, drinks in hand, waiting for somebody to get up so they can sit down. You get to know the host and the servers pretty well. And if you're at the bar, you get to know Tofee Shamatta, bartender turned temporary oyster shucker, even better. His tactics aren't as surgical as most sushi masters. But his shell-breaking technique is serious and muscular.

For our order, he shucked Kumamotos from the West Coast, which were delicate and clean tasting, almost like watermelon. From the tonier reaches of Cape Cod came Ostervilles. Not to start a gang war, but East Coast oysters are usually brinier than bivalves from the West, and these were a fine example. They were gratifyingly mellow and much bigger than the Kumamotos. (The oyster chef had only expletives for the experience of trying to get the Ostervilles to open up. Though it's probably easier than getting one of them to commit.)

Executive chef Garrett Harker's menu is rich in parts and fried in others, but excellent all over. The heirloom tomato salad is drizzled with pesto. And the arugula and red onion salad is proof that the only way to fight bitterness is with yet more bitterness. You might not imagine this to be an obviously delicious solution, but trust us.

Your one seafood-shunning friend can order the standard BLT -- above average in its own right. But it's here merely to be shamed by the other BLT, the one whose "L" is for "Lobster." And, taking a cue from Shamatta, only expletives can accurately describe how fantastic it is. The seared halibut is what you want in a fish, but its tenderness and texture are beyond what you're expecting. Even better: It came atop a sheet of spinach and surrounded by a thin gulf of white-bean puree. The salmon held its own surprises, transformed into a zestier meal by a chorizo emulsion.

At 9 p.m., as if on cue, the lights went down and the music (at a barely noticeable volume) went momentarily light jazz, a booty call away from Prince's "Pink Cashmere," which was playing when we walked in. That's when a couple over in the B&G lovers' nook, a table for two gated off behind a black railing, fed each other oysters -- a gesture that's just silly if you're a party of four.

B&G OYSTERS LTD.

Cuisine: Seafood

Address: 550 Tremont Street, Boston (South End)

Phone: 617-617-0550

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