Never mess with the classics, so they say. Although Jeremy Sewall basically adheres to this rule, he does dare to defy it. And that’s fortunate for the crowds at Kenmore Square’s Island Creek Oyster Bar, where Sewall is chef as well as co-owner.
“The core of [our menu] is the classics, and we’re going up against what people’s perceptions are of those dishes,” Sewall says. “Still, you have to put your own individual spin on it — but without going too far out of the box.”
Okay, so I’m a born-and-bred Midwesterner and I didn’t grow up frolicking at seaside clam bakes, dining in roadside seafood shacks or eating Aunt Betty’s famous chowder. But I know amazing food when I taste it. And I praise Sewall for “chef-ing things up,” as he says, and daring, for example, to serve his Grandma Ethel’s lobster roll on a freshly baked rosemary roll instead of the traditional split-top white bun, or using hand-dug clams and house-cured bacon in his creamy but light clam chowder.
He also gets a fist bump in my book for featuring contemporary dishes — yellowfin tuna tartare, lobster roe noodles, pan-seared skate wing, and many more — alongside his notable renditions of fish and chips, fried clams and seafood casserole.
“I’m pleasantly surprised at how willing people are to try something they’ve never had before,” says Sewall, who has no qualms about serving the aforementioned skate wing ($26) with a worldly trio of saffron quinoa, baby bok choy and yogurty scallion raita.
Sewall clearly is at an advantage with easy access to some of the country’s freshest and finest seafood. The restaurant’s showpiece oyster bar offers an ever-changing cavalcade of outrageously fresh oysters, some of which come from co-owner Skip Bennett’s farm in nearby Duxbury. The restaurant also brings in the bivalve mollusks from other farms — both East and West coast — whose quality products and sustainable farming practices Bennett commends.
During our visit, our large group of family and friends — sans wimpy me — happily and greedily slurped a mix of what they described as Bennett’s “fresh, creamy, sweet” Island Creeks ($2 each) and Chatham, Mass. farmer Stephen Wright’s “freshy, briny” Chathams ($2.50 each).
Items on Sewall’s menu change daily and the featured dishes depend on the variety and amount of fish and seafood available each day. Sewall, who grew up in Maine among lobstermen, attempts to use fish caught within 50 to 100 miles of the restaurant. He knows his suppliers well and chooses products that are caught or harvested sustainably — either by hook and line or by hand. The restaurant’s lobsters are supplied by his cousin, Mark Sewall.
“Our unique spin is how we’re connecting our guests with our sources and the farms,” Sewall says. “We’re bringing them all one step closer together.”
Sewall clearly makes excellent choices in the company he keeps. We plowed through a major portion of the menu and — absolutely no exaggeration — there was not a single misstep. (A particularly impressive feat, as the restaurant was filled to the gills the evening we dined there.)
Among the “best of the best” were No Shell Mussels ($11), a starter that Sewall offers in three different preparations. Chubby and gritless, our mussels arrived swimming in a piquant and creamy saffron/roasted pepper/smoked paprika broth, which I mopped up with homemade whole wheat bread. Other sauce options included a white wine and herb cream, as well as spicy lemongrass broth.
My friend Bernie and I shared IC oyster sliders ($4 each) and agreed they were heavenly. As a person with “oyster issues,” I welcomed the chance to sample Bennett’s famed oysters, here served lightly battered and crispy-fried with a dab of lime-chile aioli on decadently buttery grilled mini-brioche buns.
I’ll have to take my eldest’s word that Sewall’s brown butter-roasted lobster ($29) — accompanied by creamed peas, fennel and asparagus — was amazing, as the Eating Machine had devoured it before I could taste a bite. Fortunately, the rest of the group worked at a slower pace.
My middle son, (aka The Connoisseur) wisely selected Sewall’s signature Mrs. Bennett’s Seafood Casserole ($24). The dish is a nod to Skip’s mom, the wife of a former lobsterman, who pragmatically cooked whatever wayward seafood wound up in her husband’s lobster traps, Sewall says. Enveloped in a tomatoey house-made sherry cream sauce, The Connoisseur’s casserole featured sizable chunks of lobster, shrimp, scallops and cod nestled under a blanket of toasty brown cracker crumbs.
Other, more simply prepared entrées — such as a smoky-lemony line-caught day boat cod ($27) with artichokes, steamed Duxbury clams and chorizo or expertly prepared seared New Bedford scallops ($29) plated with asparagus, charred onion purée, ICOB tasso ham and pea greens — also impressed.
Says Sewall: “We’re always trying to make the fish shine. The fish is the star and everything else around it is the supporting cast…. There aren’t layers and layers of ingredients. We use a simple approach to highlight the fish.”
Sewall says it’s inexplicably difficult to get diners to order sweets after a seafood dinner, so he fills his dessert list with enticing, nostalgic comfort foods. Our group apparently falls outside the norm, since we ordered five desserts (all $8) among the seven of us, forgoing only the cheese plate (MP) and homemade seasonal sorbet ($6).
We enjoyed Sewall’s adaptations of panna cotta, chocolate pudding, summer blueberry shortcake and ice cream sandwiches. But his hot-out-of-the-fryer sugar-dipped native strawberry jelly-filled donuts were the hands-down favorite.
My notes on those simply say, “Whoa!”
Island Creek Oyster Bar
500 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, Massachusetts 02215