In a city awash with seafood, is this Back Bay newcomer distinctive enough to keep us coming back?
Photos on the website and walls of the Banks Fish House – salt-washed boats, dark islands, proud weather-worn fishermen – wordlessly signal the house to many who live and work on the coast of New England. As I crouch down in a corner cabin for my first dinner in Boston in months, they remind me of my own family’s sailors, fishermen and lobster boats who can tell the water temperature by the way the wind is blowing. “Salinity is near godliness” proclaims the cream-colored menu printed on heavy, sturdy card stock, and this exaltation of deep-water resistance to awe-inspiring and divine stature would seem, at least at first, to serve a good purpose. to see Banks Fish House, which opened in July 2021: it appears to be an ode to the northeastern coastal fishing community in the elegant traps of Back Bay. It turns out that the place excels in many areas, namely those for which opulent liners are known: hospitality, design, comfort. In others, however, it lacks a bit of seasoning – an element, beyond a single clever joke, that clearly conveys a distinct perspective through food and drink. Himmel Hospitality Group, owner of Banks Fish House, is behind some of the city’s most iconic local restaurants – Grill 23, Harvest, Bistro du Midi – and interestingly their latest restaurant is their first business focused on seafood. But you can throw a cod and go to a seafood restaurant in Boston. What sets this one apart?
The place certainly looks lovely. Where the “fish house” is generally reminiscent of humble clapboard quarters, the banks simply shine. The towering ceilings and large windows allow natural light to flow through an inviting color palette of browns, blues and grays that evoke the interiors of oyster shells and the moody ocean sky. Nautical light fixtures illuminate two floors of seating in high-back leather armchairs, and while the vibe is formal enough to keep the music soft and subtle in the dining room, it’s also quite fun to bang up some Kaytranada songs. in the bathroom.
Himmel’s proven hospitality is still present in the space. It’s a warm and elegant ilk: the waiters quietly support you when you are engrossed in a conversation with dining room friends and remain keenly attentive to eye contact when you want to order oysters served on thrones of crushed ice, a glass of brine, coastal white wine, or a well-made cocktail. On a late summer visit, for example, the Beach Rose Fizz ($ 13) – beach rose syrup and cardamom-gin with lime, egg white, and soda – also rolled out. pleasantly than a reading on the beach, as is the herbaceous white sangria at the restaurant. ($ 13). On the flip side, while I’m excited about the more and more thoughtfulness of soft drinks in Boston, here the Cherry Lime Tonic ($ 7) with a rainier cherry and pepper shrub was distracting and overly sweet. when I opted for a mocktail at lunchtime.
Speaking of distractions: When it comes to food, the menu seems hazy as it aims to please everyone – a recipe, usually, to leave everyone a little hungry. It covers expensive cuts of meat and flatbreads topped with seafood (with the option of adding caviar). At one point, there may be newspaper-lined fried seafood baskets, humble po ‘boys, and a short rib burger with jalapeño jack cheese. there is also salmon crudo with yuzu kosho vinaigrette, crispy fish tacos with kimchi salad and cuttlefish spaghetti with United and mussels. It all clearly comes from a place of affection: restaurateur Chris Himmel grew up fishing for tuna off Cape Ann, while chef Robert Sisca exercised his passion for seafood at Bistro du Midi and Garde East. on the Vineyard. The desire to do it all, however, results in a scattered selection. That Sisca could maneuver to port, then to starboard, then to port again, on a dime is quite an achievement. It is also difficult to say where the banks are going.
While the identity of the restaurant seems rather vague, Sisca cooks with confidence and conviction. Luxurious salmon ($ 38), for one, really hit the nail on the head with its crunchy skin covered in velvety meat, which mingled with sliced pork belly, melted Swiss chard and gravy. satin carbonara. Banks’ lobster cooking (market) was a sight the moment it landed on the table in a double-handled pot overflowing with tiny potatoes, corn, gaping clams and lobster, its tail split open and dressed in herb butter, head and body peering over the rest of the dish. And unsurprisingly, given that Grill 23 is one of Boston’s most successful steakhouses, the filet a la béarnaise ($ 55), a generous cut with juicy, ruby interiors, was an elegant paragon of a good chop. . The sides aren’t an afterthought either: the golden rolls ($ 6), speckled with salt and flavored with butter, were a highlight of every meal, as was the cast-iron jalapeño cornbread ($ 6 ) with its deeply browned edges.
The other dishes on the menu are no match for them. The Little Gems Caesar ($ 14) didn’t have the umami– the packed depth you’d want from the iconic salad, and a fried fisherman platter ($ 42) was without the bright salty taste and symphonic crackle found in the litany of Boston-area fried seafood. Cuttlefish spaghetti ($ 27), an ink and butter tangle sprinkled with mussels and draped in United, meanwhile, needed a hint of acid to slice through the rich sea urchin brine. And although the Chowda flatbread ($ 19) – a white pizza topped with clams, bacon, and crème fraîche and topped with a few oyster crackers – was under-seasoned, the clam chowder ($ 9) was too salty at the degree that a small cup remained unfinished.
Desserts, when we get there, are joyful and rewarding, like coming home to dry land after surfing the bumpy ocean waves. Pastry chef Alyx Abreu’s creations are unified by one goal: to take classics potentially by heart (think crème brûlée or fed bananas) in festive directions. The one-night seasonal strawberry cheesecake ($ 15) is still anchored in my memory months later: Between the lemon-butter shortbread crust and the Basque-style browned top were layers of cream. light, pink in color, as sweet as summer itself. Another evening, Abreu’s theft of ice cream and sorbet ($ 12) – cold infused coconut, mint chocolate chips, ginger mango, wild berries – plunged my table into absolute silence.
If only the banks themselves had a stronger voice. This is a great restaurant, but I still don’t know who it is for. Outsiders looking for lobster rolls? Costumes looking for a place for lunch? Hungry friends who are all on very different pages? Gastronomy alone does not house a restaurant in the mind of a guest. There must be a course of action, at the level of the personality, which is tangible and to taste-to be able to. This is what prompts someone to remember a restaurant when they wonder, “Of all the places in town, where should I eat tonight?” Perhaps the Banks will eventually find their place in Boston’s seafood scene. Right now, however, I think he’s still wondering where to anchor.
406 Stuart Street, Boston, 617-399-0015, thebanksboston.com.
Highlights of the menu
Faroe Islands Salmon ($ 38), Baked Banks Lobster (Market), Seasonal Cheesecake ($ 15), Rolls ($ 6)
★★★★ Extraordinary | ★★★ Generally excellent | Good | ★ Fair | (No stars) Poor