Monday, February 24, 2014

Sea(food) of Changes at Mare

Stripping things down for simplicity’s sake often works wonders. Take, for instance, MTV’s 90’s Unplugged concert series, where the likes of electric rock and roll legends such as Eric Clapton and Nirvana’s song catalogues were scaled back into acoustic versions and transformed into something almost unrecognizable, even magical. Culinary transformations can work in a similar way when done properly. Mare, a longtime seafood-focused Italian restaurant staple in Boston’s North End, rebranded itself in 2012 into a full-blown oyster bar. Sure, there still exists a handful of intriguing pasta dishes such as parpadelle with wild boar, but it is seafood that dominates the menu. Gone are the neon-illuminated lights that once adorned Mare’s exterior, replaced with an ice-covered display of oysters and glass mirrors above the bar inscribed with daily oyster selections.

More often than not, the kitchen’s cuisine is good, sometime excellent. Starters are most intriguing, starting with a trio of crudos (yellowfin tuna, salmon, and kampachi, $16.99), which surprisingly comes out deconstructed in lieu of the more traditionally layered plating. While each fish was carelessly sliced into 3 pieces, they nicely benefitted from a touch of salt. Even better was the pizzetta di Mare ($17.99), a pizza that possessed an addictively crispy, cracker-like crust topped with fresh tomatine sauce. While the pie was not topped with any cheese, an abundance of grilled seafood – including calamari, shrimp and scallops – was heaped on. This pie would easily rival any of Mare’s North End neighborhood pizzerias, and has the table craving more slices.

Entrees were appealing, albeit inconsistent. The zuppa di Mare (market price) contained generous amounts of fish, including a half lobster, scallops, mussels, cockles, and clams in a light, spicy tomato broth. It was the perfect seafood comfort food on a chilly winter evening. Truffle crusted tuna ($27.99), however, while cooked perfectly rare, was poorly seasoned. The fish’s exterior lacked any hint of that alluring truffle flavor, and was excessively oversalted. If restraint is Mare’s new motto, then the kitchen’s salt application needs fine tuning. Grigliata di Pesce (grilled seafood of day – market price) featured lobsters on steroids, whose meat was tender and succulent. And lest we forget those oysters, the restaurant’s main attraction. We ordered a handful of different varieties, which were beautifully plated over ice and nicely shucked. With the exception of lone oyster selection that was offputtingly fishy and briny, the oysters were smooth and paired nicely with a trio of horseradish, cocktail, and soy sauces.

Creative cocktails infused with spirits ($11.99-$12.99), while potent, were inconsistent like the entrees. A Mare margherita made with Grand Marnier fared better, while an Old Cuban – an offshoot of a Mojito – was far too bitter.

Service, while amiable, lacked polish. A bread basket needs to be requested three times. While the leisurely pace of the meal is appreciated, there exist noticably prolonged stretches between courses.

Overall, Mare offers adequate service and cuisine. When your bill for two, however, exceeds $200, the realization kicks in that the restaurant fails to meet high expectations. Whereas Neptune Oyster delivers on its hype, Mare does not. It’s merely good, and in spite of all of the changes it has undergone to strip things down, perhaps Mare could now use some sprucing up.