Thursday, July 30, 2015

Ostra Delivers An Opulent Dining Experience

Can fine dining and seafood coexist in Boston? That's a phenomenon about as rare as a Tom Brady cellphone sighting nowadays. Sure, there's beloved Island Creek Oyster House in Kenmore Square, its more scaled-back sister restaurant, Row 34 on the Waterfront, and even Chef Daniel Bruce's well-respected, longstanding Meritage at the Boston Harbor Hotel. But from the likes of chef/owner Jamie Mammano, who oversees other luxurious restaurants including the ageless South End eatery, Mistral and the uber-stylish Backbay Italian staple, Sorellina, what better way to celebrate contemporary Mediterranean seafood than in the space once occupied by popular Middle Eastern themed Avila, located at the outskirts of both Chinatown and the Theater District? Ostra is, after all, a truly an intoxicating combination of East meets West culinary styles.

And like its Columbus Hospitality Group counterparts, Ostra swings big across the board, starting with its sophisticated ambience. You know you're in for a serious dining experience from the moment you arrive -a  piano lounge and expansive bar with Beetlejuice-themed furniture to the left (garrulous, Hollywood blonde hostess straight ahead), and a towering dining room to your right (complete with catherdral ceilings and high noise levels unless seated near a window), complete with immense black and white photographs depicting land and sea. There's also an open kitchen in which a team of chefs can be viewed meticulously preparing one's meal, an ice-filled case of whole fish, and pendants resembling jellyfish. While rather vapid white walls and tablecloths are a bit dour, expensive white fine china plates ($125 apiece) featuring wave-like patterns are meticulously presented while mysteriously quickly whisked away from our table, as if the servers are teasing us. Who said luxury should be a fleeting moment?

An ultra-fresh, housemade bread basket cooked with potatoes and vidalia onions is a harbinger of good things to come from Executive Chef Mitchell Randall's intriguing menu.There are several appealing items from which to choose on Ostra's raw menu. We bypass a jalapeno-seasoned himachi for an aesthetically pleasing sea bass tartare ($22), an artfully presented fish that is both light and elegant, topped with a couple of slices velvety, black truffle. Vertical, wafer-thin fennel crostini are served on the side, a wonderful crispy compliment to the moist fish.

A first course of grilled Spanish octopus ($24) comes in several small round, chewy bites, and yet, to our amazement, the first order is woefully overcooked, rendering the meat charred and flavorless. It is swiftly removed from our bill with the most sincere apologies and check-ins from Ostra's general manager. Thankfully, the second attempt is flawless, the octopus's rubbery texture accentuated by a hint of lemon, a pool of olive oil, paprika, and raw sweet Vidalia onions as a bold counterpoint in flavor.

Paella "Valencia Style" ($48) brings me back to my college studies abroad in Spain, a mammoth silver platter theatrically opened by our server to reveal short-grain Spanish rice laced with flavorful saffron with just enough crunch along with an abundance of lobster (which, to me, tasted a tad too fishy), jumbo shrimp, mussels, clams, more octopus, squid, nicely spiced chorizo, and even a chicken drumette.

What better way to celebrate a fine dining experience near the Theatre District than to enjoy a theatrical dessert from budding executive pastry chef Jennifer Luna? While a unique sorbet trio ($10) consisting of coconut-yuzu, mango-pineapple and fresh berry didn't recreate the flawlessly executed, ice cream-esque chocolate sorbet that is universally beloved at Mistral, it was a refreshingly smooth finale nonetheless. But the real showstopper of the evening was Luna's visually stunning "snow egg" ($11) that our server insisted we must try. The 'egg' itself was in actuality a lemon curd mousse-filled meringue appearing to float atop plump raspberries, basil syrup, and a yarn of spun sugar resembling a crown. While the sugar was a bit tough to navigate one's spoon through, its flavor, albeit a bit overpowering, nicely cut into the tanginess of the lemon curd. I don't think I've tasted such an innovatively light, delightful dessert like this in ages.

Service is polished yet inviting, our waitress eager to steer us in the right direction with her recommendations (she seems to be a veteran stolen away from Mistral's staff). Cocktails can be steep price-wise ($15-21), including an odd-sounding, yet aptly prepared oyster martini. Ostra's wine selection is extensive and hails from regions including France, Italy, Spain, Napa, and even some unique selections from Greece and Germany/Central Europe. Wines by the glass range from $12-$25, and one can find moderate priced bottles to the exorbitant (a $ 2300 Shafer Hillside Select Magnum cabernet from Napa).

Tack on $21 for valet, and you have yourself one very expensive, yet highly rewarding dining experience. Ostra is defined as a tropical marine bivalve that is a major source of pearls. And that's what one should expect when dining at this fine dining establishment - it's legitimately one of Boston's crown jewels for sophisticated, well-executed seafood.

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