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Boston has no shortage of seafood restaurants, but many of them are relatively simple, offering oysters, clam chowder, lobster rolls and other staples of the New England kitchen. On our recent trip, we dined at two places that aspire to a more elevated standard.
This renowned establishment on Boylston Street, across from the Boston Public Library, has long been an Andrew Harper-recommended restaurant, so a return visit was overdue. The Atlantic Fish Company remains enduringly popular, and it is essential to make a reservation well in advance. We arrived in the early evening to find the place already packed. The interior design is nautical, with navy-blue leather booths, polished woodwork, semaphore flags and model sailing crafts in glass cases. And the mood is lively, to the point of being boisterous at times. What is never in question is the quality of the ingredients, including the seafood, which is sourced from a local fourth-generation family business. The menu offers a range of appetizers, plus oysters and clams from the raw bar, and then separate sections for lobster, seafood specialities and the catch of the day, with fish being available “grilled, broiled, fried, pan seared, blackened or baked with garlic breadcrumbs.” To start, we opted for the lobster ravioli with shiitake mushrooms and basil cream — nice but rather bland — and a bowl of steamers. The latter was composed of a huge tottering pile of shells, providing an immediate reminder that portions here tend to be enormous (or generous, depending on your point of view). For mains, we tried the San Francisco cioppino, which was also gargantuan, and the moist and flavorful crab-crusted haddock with truffle-salted potatoes and sautéed spinach. Essentially, you come to the Atlantic Fish Company for the convivial atmosphere and the quality of the ingredients, which are best when simply prepared. The food is often delicious, but haute cuisine this is not.
Atlantic Fish Company
761 Boylston Street. Tel. (617) 267-4000
The newest addition to the roster of Boston seafood restaurants — the Banks Fish House opened in July last year — has more pretensions to gastronomic refinement. Owner Chris Himmel grew up beside the sea in Marblehead, Massachusetts, and trained with Danny Meyer and Thomas Keller before taking over as president of his family business, Himmel Hospitality Group, which comprises the well-known Boston restaurants Grill 23 & Bar, Harvest and Bistro du Midi. Chef Robert Sisca’s varied and extensive résumé includes a four-year stint with seafood maestro Eric Ripert, at Michelin three-star Le Bernardin in New York. I went to the Banks for lunch and was surprised to find it a relatively casual place, with a 26-seat cocktail bar, a 12-seat raw bar, a fire beneath a metal canopy at the center of the downstairs dining room and huge windows looking out onto Stuart Street. Here were no suited businesspeople but rather couples in earnest conversation and individuals perched at the counter with books and magazines. I had experienced no difficulty securing a table for 12.30 p.m., but evening reservations have become notoriously hard to come by. The menu features predictable dishes, such as steamed whole lobster and Dover sole meunière, but there are also more complex options such as swordfish with pistachio, smoked beet purée, cauliflower mornay, sundried tomato and Cara Cara orange, and roasted cod with grilled chicories, winter squash purée, foraged mushrooms and Burgundy-thyme jus. I opted for an appetizer of smoked bluefish pâté with furikake, chives, espelette and crostini, which was tangy and distinctive, followed by cuttlefish spaghetti with Maine uni and mussels. The latter had a delicious and intriguing combination of flavors, but I found the texture to be slightly glutinous. Still, I would certainly return to the Banks on a future visit to Boston, and do not hesitate to recommend it. However, those who prefer a more conventional fine dining environment may find the atmosphere a little too laid-back and unstructured for their taste.
The Banks Fish House
406 Stuart Street. Tel. (617) 399-0015