Ostra is part of the Columbus Hospitality Group, which has been in business for 25 years now. He is perhaps best known for Mistralthe flagship French bistro opened by chef Jamie Mammano and his partner Paul Roiff in 1997. Other restaurants followed, including the Italian Sorellina and yeah…., a Beacon Hill steakhouse that has expanded to Seaport and Burlington. The hotel group as a whole deserves to be recognized for its consistent excellence over time. Its restaurants are chic, unwavering, special without being ostentatious. They’re not distinguished by experimental cuisine or trendy cocktail programs or other hallmarks of today’s fine dining (not dead, just evolving, as things do). They are investment pieces that diners turn to season after season, and rightly so.
Located in Park Square, Ostra sometimes flies under the radar when people talk about restaurants. Still, it has a clear sequel. Take a seat in the dining room — with its white walls, high ceilings, and large-scale black-and-white photos of the rocky coastline — and it’s easy to see. Returning from the friendly bar, you will come across concentrated cooks in an open kitchen, fish shimmering on a bed of ice. The room is noisy. It always has been. At this point, it’s safe to say that it’s a choice, and one with downsides. But if it was quiet here, it might feel stuffy. This is never the case. It’s remarkable how much fun the customers seem to have. It’s remarkable how busy the restaurant gets later on a weekday evening, reserved for the gills. You feel cosmopolitan in a city that starts to yawn early.
Executive Chef Alex Interiano’s menu has barely changed since the restaurant’s version opened in late 2013, but it feels good so far, which means it was ahead of its time. Finally, restaurants in Boston are focusing on seafood in droves – it seems like a cool new oyster bar is opening every week, and hopefully that will continue until oysters are served on every corner out of town, and then we’ll be in Paris and have universal health care and take the whole month of August off. But at Ostra, diners ate Duxbury powder dots and Maine unicorns, crudo compositions and simply perfectly cooked fish – deep wine list, perfect service and tablecloth included. If Boston has an equivalent to the famous New York fish restaurant Le Bernardin, it is surely this one.
And why would Interiano remove sea bass tartare? Bites of fish laced with truffle aioli and topped with black truffle shavings, it balances lightness with just a touch of richness; there are crunchy fennel pollen crostini to bite into. The salmon tartare is smoked to order and arrives under a bell jar. A waiter lifts the domed top and the plumes fly away. The smoke disperses to reveal fish generously drizzled with caviar and cream. It’s a schmear with staging, hold the bagel.
There are also simple pleasures here. (There are also meat dishes for those who crave them.) Platters of colossal shrimp arrive on ice with cocktail sauce and lemon wedges. Each meal begins with a homemade ciabatta bun topped with sliced fingerlings – potato chips, basically, because they crisp up while cooking. It comes with good butter and olive oil, so nobody has to choose.
Another dish that should never be off the menu is ricotta gnocchetti. Tender little dumplings mingle with Maine lobster, beech mushrooms and an added boost of black truffles. Equally good, and easier to miss: the fennel and lemon risotto with tiger prawns. It showcases the care of the kitchen, served at the perfect temperature, grains al dente and infused with deep shellfish flavor, beautiful shrimp cooked just like that. When two guests are sharing, the kitchen divides the dish, plating each portion separately.
Careful cooking is found in every dish, from the tender grilled octopus, to the saddle of roasted local monkfish with mushroom ragout, to the signature preparation of salt-crusted branzino for two. It takes 45 minutes to prepare, and it’s a stunner in its golden crust. A waiter cuts it up to devour it with olive oil, herbs and lemon. Grilled Maine Twin Lobster features sweet meat in split shells, the luxury of the lazy. He, too, arrives under a dome, with small pitchers of herb butter and clarified butter, plus a lemon half-wrapped in a squeezable net. The vegetables on the side – potatoes, beets, mushrooms, mashed squash – only seem foreign when you taste them.
What to drink with this meal? The wine list is substantial, covering a lot of ground and containing many celebratory bottles. Staff members seem to know this front and back. How about a French white at the lower end of the price that offers value and is food worthy? Our waiter finds us the perfect bottle of Chablis. Equally important, we feel as cared for and valued as if we had ordered a $1300 Meursault. It starts with the warm welcome from General Manager Hoshang Dadrass as we walk in and continues through to dessert – before which someone not only crumbles our table, but covers the unsightly stains we left behind with fresh, clean napkins.
The last dish is nice and quite classic, in the vein of chocolate pie / panna cotta / apple pie. This is one area where it wouldn’t hurt to mix things up a bit. The thing to order is the Snow Egg, an eye-catching confection of meringue and lemon curd mousse over raspberries with basil syrup, topped with a crown of spun sugar.
Then enjoy the caramel-filled geometric chocolates that come with the check. It’s a nice last touch in a night full of them. Ostra is a casual restaurant even when the occasion is simply a nice dinner with a friend. As we all know by now, it really is something to celebrate.
1 Charles Street South, Boston, 617-421-1200, www.ostraboston.com.
Wheelchair accessible; no outdoor seating.
Prices Raw dishes $21-$30. First lessons $18-$34. Main courses $36-$125. Desserts $14-$18.
Hours Sun-Thu 5.30pm-9.30pm, Fri-Sat 5.30pm-10pm
Noise level Strong
★★★★★ Extraordinary | ★★★★ Perfect | ★★★ Very good | ★★ Good | ★ Fair | (No stars) Poor