I suppose this ought to be a review.
Island Creek Oyster Bar is a collaboration between Island Creek Oysters, a well known Massachusetts oyster farm, Jeremy Sewall (Lineage, Brookline), restauranteur Garrett Harker and sited in the Hotel Commonwealth, regrettably one of the uglier buildings in Boston proper (exterior only). But don’t hold this against the hotel or the restaurant, after all it is also home to Eastern Standard.
Tonight was my second visit to ICOB and I feel the same way about it now as I did in April. Yes, you should absolutely go. But that recommendation comes with a a lot of ‘however’s.
ICOB makes the most of the gravity and energy of its location. It has a small amount (compared to the rest of the restaurant) of glass frontage that offers diners in that area a view of the bustling streets outside, but mostly lets foot-traffic hear and see the party that must be going on inside since so many people are waiting and the large bar is packed. The Hotel Commonwealth is on the eastern margin of the Boston University campus and very close to Fenway park so all the youthful exuberance of a 30,000 person student body and Red Sox Nation kind of seeps into the space and the designers seized this and put together a clever balance of modern, retro and local. The palette is gray and silver, the chairs are white with slatted backs reminiscent of award-winning photos of white washed Nantucket picket fences. And the menus, coasters, and napkins all echo New England’s quirky ‘classic is always modern’ conservatism. The space is large, tends to the loud and is always full enough to feel festive. Part of the pleasure I take in eating there is feeling like I am in ‘the scene’ without having to be of ‘the scene.’
What they do right. The host said the wait would be an hour and fifteen minutes for five people. The wait was an hour and fifteen minutes for our party of five. Honesty is great. Underestimating is bad. And they take your phone number so you don’t have to be tied to the restaurant. Our bartender was charming, though I have had bartenders there who were not. Every staff member moves around you. People who are waiting have a tendency to clutter the floor in unpredictable patterns. No one ever suggested via body language or comment that we were in the way, even though we absolutely were. And when we were seated we had a lovely meal at our own pace. So I appreciated the wait insofar as it makes me think they were not rushing our predecessors either.
The table service is very good. It is not obsequious. It is very apparent that your server is very busy, but we were well-tended. We asked to greet the GM, who used to be the bar manager at another restaurant we frequent. It was a tenuous connection at best but the GM was gracious and sent out a little treat at the end of the meal. The music was a little too loud in our corner and there was a food photo-shoot going on, but these inspired some comic lip-syncing and conversation fodder so we’ll take it.
The food –and here’s where it starts to go south for me: I don’t love oysters. I have not eaten enough and do not enjoy them enough to be able to say ‘Oh my gosh these are so fantastic!’. My dining companions were very satisfied though so I will give the oysters the benefit of the doubt. The lobster roe pasta was very good – great flavors, beautiful presentation, a generous amount of lobster and just devourably yummy. The greckfish entrée I had was meaty, well cooked but not very flavorful. The fish and chips were well prepared, the batter is light and remained crisp and the batter to fish ratio is excellent. The fries were better than some but not the star and a little too copious. On my first visit there my salad was over-dressed, my halibut cheeks were dry and their biscuit was fine, but too large and a little too sweet with the honey. I do recognize that ICOB and I have slightly different palates, but that they use excellent ingredients well. Still for the price point I am wishing that every dish was very good every night.
Bottom line it’s a splurge. Splurges are fun sometimes. And this one is pretty well-rounded. Go once and remember your dollars are going to the location and the vibe. If you want to feel like most of your dollars are going towards what you put in your mouth, there are more dependable and inventive places to dine.