I’m just going to come right out and say it – the hour plus wait at Neptune Oyster (even at lunch) did not make a whole lot of sense to me. Sure the oft raved restaurant has a fanciful location in the touristy North End, sure the seafood is fresh and somewhat uniquely presented, and without a doubt the place is too small for its popularity – but really, is it THAT much better than the rest of Boston’s oyster bars and purveyors of fresh seafood? Well, for my first true sit-down meal in Boston that is exactly what I aimed to find out and joined by two locals who had been there a number of times I can only say I’m glad we had appetizer pizzas at Regina before braving the nearly 80 minute out the door line.
Owned and operated by Jeff Nance and featuring a mere 44 seats including the raw bar my first impression on entering Neptune was probably the first impression everyone has – sardines – as in “packed in there like sardines;” to say the least this place is a tight squeeze. With that consideration noted, my second thought on walking past each diner en route to our table was “that looks good – that too – oh, and what is that;” in other words, the product they are putting on the table looks outstanding even from afar and the restaurant smells nothing like an “oyster shack” but rather like the upscale bistro that it is – a bistro of bivalves if you will.
With the paper menu already perused during our long wait it would be a short time before our server, a pleasant young man with an astounding knowledge of the myriad types of raw oysters and other seafood combinations on the menu, would arrive at our table with glasses of ice water. Not an enormous fan of raw oysters myself but pleasantly seated with a direct view into the kitchen I listened as the province, flavor profile, and texture of each oyster was described and within moments one of my co-diners had selected a half dozen that would arrive shucked on ice and by then the rest of our order was decided and we were left with perhaps a twenty minute wait during which beverages never reached less than 1/3 empty.
Noting already that service was extraordinary throughout our meal, I will note that the small kitchen’s pacing was unfortunately less so – an issue for myself particularly as I ordered a warm appetizer and warm main course with both delivered simultaneously leading to a conundrum as to which would suffer from the air conditioner blowing directly over our heads. While our server noted that this “shouldn’t have happened” even as he delivered the food and tried to make up for it by granting our request for a sample of the a la minute clam chowder it unfortunately did happen and the thin milky lacking both salinity and texture really did not make up for a lukewarm $25 main course.
With my co-diners having already visited Neptune a number of times in the past one of them decided to try something new while the other opted for his tried and true; the first a Vitello Tonnato sandwich with roasted veal, tuna tartare, cucumber salad, and spicy wasabi mustard and the second a plate of seared Georges Bank Scallops with Braised Pork Shank, Sienna Farms Root Vegetables, Brussels Sprouts, and Chanterelles. Graciously allowed to taste a couple bites of each I’ll note that despite my feelings about veal/beef in general, the Vitello was actually much more like a creamy and subtle tuna tartare sandwich than veal – as a matter of fact, if anything the veal mostly served to make the standard tuna seem more textural and fatty; toro-esque if you will and while I personally feel a heftier bread would have helped, it was still quite good. Moving on to the scallops – they were almost so good that they made me regret my order as the caramelized scallops married perfectly with the slightly sweet pork while the root vegetable and chanterelle combination did likewise with the caramelized Brussels.
For my selections, save for the timing issue alluded to above, the flavors at Neptune Oyster remained spot on for both appetizer and main course – the first, the house special Neptunes on Piggyback. Described as “Crispy Oysters, Berkshire Pig, Golden Raisin Confiture, Pistachio Aioli” and served beneath greens and atop toast these lovely plump oysters arrived perfectly crisp on the exterior and briny and sweet within. Paired with the tasty shredded pork beneath, sweet raisins, and a splash of acid from the aioli I personally could have done with more oyster and less bread considering the price, but all things being equal this was a surf n’ turf combination done quite right.
For my main course – well, I simply couldn’t resist the hype; especially after we’d waited for so long and it seemed everyone in the place was ordering one. Described simply as “Maine Lobster Roll with toasted roll, hot with butter, fries” and checking in at $25 all I can say is that the parts I was able to eat hot were everything you’d expect from hot buttered lobster – no more and no less. Ample in portion and with the bread nearly saturated with butter while still holding its form I only wish more places in Boston served their lobster rolls in the manner as opposed to cold with Mayonnaise. Was it worth $25? Probably not, especially as I was not wowed by the fries – but it was quite tasty and prepared perfectly with a great meat to bun ratio and plenty of butter.
With the check divided and paid our exit from Neptune would be almost precisely one hour after we entered the door and even then the wait time for those leaving their name at the door remained “an hour to an hour and a half” and all things being equal I’d say the experience and food was worth the wait at least once – but looking back in retrospect on my trip if I were a local I’d probably not return anytime soon unless I lived in the neighborhood given the quality, size, convenience, and reservations system of their new competition near Fenway – Island Creek Oyster Bar.