Shack Up

Crouching in front of our booth and leaning his arms on the edge of the table, John, our server extraordinaire, educates us on the art of eating seafood. The raw oysters, he tells us, should be pried from their shells with a plastic baby fork to preserve the integrity of their flavor. “You’re looking for something subtle,” he explains patiently. “It’s like wine—you’re looking for that special something that makes it different, better.”

At Jasper White’s Summer Shack, that special something isn’t so much subtle. The restaurant proudly sets itself apart from other Boston seafood proprietors with its complete lack of pretense. Housed in an inconspicuous warehouse-type building off of Alewife Brook Parkway, the Summer Shack’s heart is clearly in Cape Cod. A 16-foot sailor stands sentinel outside the entrance to the Summer Shack—with his yellow slicker and pipe, he looks like a proper New England seadog. Inside, the large open dining area is teeming with activity. The sprawling kitchen is completely exposed to the view of restaurant patrons, and at the center of the dining area a massive 1500-gallon lobster tank makes for an impressive focal point. Families line the sides of long wooden picnic benches, while smaller parties occupy the vinyl-coated booths. Balloons float merrily in the air, adding to the already circus-like area. Looking around with a smile, John admits, “If you’re looking for a quiet experience, it’s not going to happen.”

Still, as warm, sunny days grow few and far between, the shack is a welcome throwback to the lazy days of summer. The rowdy, boisterous atmosphere invites diners to relax, indulge and enjoy the simple pleasure of a good, hearty meal. And despite the playful air, the shack takes its food very seriously. The waitstaff is extremely knowledgeable, explaining each of the specials with care, and taking pains to help diners choose from the extensive menu.

As the Shack was recently named best raw bar in Boston, we begin with the “Tower of Power,” a two-tiered creation of shaved ice, cherrystone seviche, Malpeque oysters, New England littleneck clams, and shrimp. Diving in headfirst, we slurp the raw oysters and clam from their shells, enjoying their unfamiliar texture and salty taste. When pressed for an adjective to describe the peculiar flavor, FM photographer Hayley B. Barna laughs and says, “They taste like Long Island Sound.” Our raw bar ignorance notwithstanding, the tower was delicious—the seviche was subtle and refreshing, and the clams and oysters delicate and bright.

The main dishes arrive and are placed atop the table with a flourish. The fried clam platter is a heaping plate of crisp clams, seasoned French fries and homemade coleslaw. The traditional New England clambake takes up a good part of the table itself—the lobster is accompanied by mussels, clams, corn on the cob, potatoes, chorizo and an egg. The egg, Assistant General Manager Chris McGann explains, is a vestige of the olden days when the cook timed the steaming of the lobster by boiling an egg simultaneously. The yellowfin tuna steak is precisely cooked with a tender, rare interior and topped with sauce veracruz (a seafood stock with tomatoes, garlic, onion and pepper).

As John whisks away his empty serving platter, we survey the vast feast in front of us with greedy eyes. We immediately begin sampling the various offerings, discovering that everything—from the main courses to the side dishes—is of the highest quality. The whole-bellied clams are plump and fried to a golden crisp, with none of the rubbery texture that they often have. The lobster is sweet and complemented perfectly by the steamed mussels and clams. Despite the food overload, we can’t resist trying the Shack’s chocolate banana cream pie and pumpkin pie—both baked on the premises and with a home-cooked feel.

Jasper White’s trademark motto, “Food is Love,” is splashed across seemingly every surface of the restaurant—the menus, t-shirts, walls—and the restaurant tries to abide by the principle. At Summer Shack, the focus is decidedly on the food. Everything is made on the premises, and the fish is brought in on a daily basis. “Getting seafood is a 24-hour job,” John explains. “We have a guy who goes down to the docks and creates a relationship with the guy who grows the oysters.”

It’s clear that even the staff has internalized Jasper’s mantra, earnestly preaching the virtues of quality food and deliberate dining. As we jokingly tell John that we are embarrassed by the amount of food we’ve consumed, he looks like doesn’t quite get the joke. “Dining is a dying art,” the veteran waiter says gravely. “People used to come in and eat. Now they rush in and are like, ‘I want that, that and that.’ They wolf it down.”

Every week, regulars come in for Monday night football, prizes and free hot dogs. On Tuesday and Wednesday nights, there are “smashing crab parties,” where guests are invited to let out their aggression on local Jonah crabs.

But any night of the week, McGann says, the Shack “is a place where you have a chance to forget about everything. It’s a clam shack in the urban jungle, minus the ocean splashing at the door.”

Fall may be creeping around the corner, but it’s always summertime at the Shack.