BOSTON -- You can't visit this city without sampling the cannoli from Mike's or Modern pastry shops in the North End. Or trying the venerable Yankee side dish, baked beans, baked up just right at Durgin-Park in Faneuil Hall Marketplace. And for heaven's sake, girl, get a bowl of creamy New England clam chowder at Ned Devine's -- or as Bostonians would say, chowdah.
Yet this also is a city where you can find culinary heaven on the half shell.
How good are the oysters? So good, apparently, that the guy sitting next to me at Island Creek Oyster Bar, or ICOB, in Boston's trendy Kenmore neighborhood flew here, 1,600 miles from Miami, for the weekend just to eat them.
Two dozen of the briny, glistening bivalves, in fact, and that was just as an appetizer. He was off to somewhere else for dinner.
"They're the absolute best," he said after slurping the last one down.
Our first night in town, we'd ended up at Island Creek in the lobby of Hotel Commonwealth at the suggestion of several who know Boston's food scene well, including this paper's executive editor. The restaurant is on a lot of "best of" lists, chief among them Boston Magazine's 2012 list of the city's 50 best restaurants. Its editors called ICOB "the seafood destination we've always needed -- a place to which we can confidently send, well, just about everyone."
I read that to mean me, a person who likes oysters but certainly isn't an expert.
No worries: Our friendly server behind the long granite bar was happy to give me a quick tutorial.
Not all oysters are created equal. Just like the grapes in fine wine, the region and waters from which they come affect their flavor. The key, he said, is freshness. Oysters should smell like the sea, be firm in texture and be brimming with liquid. Price depends on provenance.
The marquee selection at ICOB is the namesake Island Creek Oyster ($2.50 apiece), raised in a muddy, windswept flat in Duxbury Bay on the coast of Massachusetts. Plump in their white-and-brown shells, they're sweet and buttery, with a wonderfully briny finish. I can see why the Floridian stuffed himself silly with them.
Me, I only had one, because I also wanted to sample the Rocky Nook oysters (from Kingston, Mass., $2.50), which are a bit milder and sweeter; the intensely salty Chathams (from Cape Cod, $3); and Dodge Cove Pemaquid (grown in Muscongum Bay, Maine, $2.50), saltier still but in a good way. They taste like the ocean.
Raw-bar selections change daily based on what's fresh, and the menu -- which lists the grower and harvester for each oyster -- is printed just before service. (Your server will help you choose wisely, and also suggest the perfect glass pour to go with them. We opted for the ICOB Pilsner.) They're arranged on a plate of ice just so, so you know exactly which type you're eating.
ICOB, I might add, also has terrific fish and chips, made with Gulf of Maine cod, and deliciously sweet fried Ipswich clams. (Another reason I only ordered a few oysters.) And definitely make room for the showstopper buttermilk biscuit. It's enormous, and comes dripping with honey, butter and rosemary. At least the oysters only had 10 calories apiece!
Be sure to make reservations. You need them even to sit at the bar.
The next afternoon, we embraced tradition at Union Oyster House, the oldest restaurant in Boston and oldest continually operating in America (since 1826). Daniel Webster is said to have eaten many, many oysters here at its semi-circular oak bar. John F. Kennedy, before he was president, dined in a booth upstairs. We were instantly charmed. Whereas ICOB speaks to modern, hip Boston, Union Oyster is all about its historic past. Located in a 31/2-story brick Georgian building that dates to pre-Revolutionary days -- built in 1717, it originally housed a silk and dry-goods store -- it's got wide-plank floors, hand-hewn wood ceiling beams and stall-type booths. In other words, it oozes with atmosphere.
It can be tough to find a spot at the raw bar, which counts just 10 stools, but those front-row seats are where the action is. Some 3,000 oysters are shucked there each day, and it's a fascinating display of speed, preciseness and skill. The day we were there, we had a choice between just two oysters: Atlantic Blue Point, cultivated in Great South Bay, N.Y.; and Goose Cove, from Maine. We went with a half-dozen of the former ($15.95), which are on the menu every day and a customer favorite. They were tasty, but not as tasty as the ones at ICOB.
Everything's better in threes, so on our third night, we headed to one more famous oyster joint in Boston's South End. I had the opportunity to interview Andrew Zimmern when he was in town last month to film a Pittsburgh episode of "Bizarre Foods," and so I asked: Where should we go?
"B&G," he promptly responded. "Definitely B&G."
He was spot on.
This tiny, subterranean neighborhood restaurant has earned plenty of accolades over the years, and I immediately could tell why. The service was incredibly friendly, and the dishes of seafood that went out at an amazingly fast clip were exquisitely plated. Telling the host we'd be in and out with just a quick sampling (it was a busy Sunday night), he snagged us a coveted seat at the long white marble bar, where we watched as a pair of young chefs cooked and plated salmon, fried calamari and lobster rolls in the open kitchen. Too cool.
I was eager to try something different than what I'd eaten at the previous two stops, but not sure what. Hilary, our barmaid, suggested three from the daily list of more than a dozen oysters she felt sure I'd like. They were served, in classic style, with wedges of lemon and a small vessel of mignonette.
The Salt Aire from Canada's Prince Edward Island ($3.45) was plump and pleasantly briny. Mild and just a little bit salty, the Pawaget ($3.80), raised in Rhode Island, was similarly delicious. But my favorite was the Cape May Salt oyster ($3.50), so fresh and sweet.
Then that was it. I was oystered out. On to Little Italy for pasta and cannoli.
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.