Boca Oyster Bar in Bridgeport is more than just a restaurant. But not in the trite, promotional sense of the phrase. It’s part of something bigger. And if all plans come to fruition, it could be part of the biggest thing to hit Bridgeport since P.T. Barnum.
Boca is the anchor of Steelpointe Harbor, a mixed-use development on the waterfront near the Bridgeport & Port Jefferson Ferry that, when complete, is expected to consist of the marina, shops, restaurants, hotels, office space and thousands of residential units. It’s also the land on which the proposed MGM Bridgeport casino would be built.
But at the moment, Boca is the main attraction.
“Right now I wish there were a lot more buildings up that were occupied,” says Yanni Taxiltaridis, partner and general manager. Boca opened in June and Taxiltaridis says business was booming immediately, thanks in large part to a spacious outdoor bar and patio area overlooking Long Island Sound. “The hardest part is gonna be this first winter. Once next March comes along, I think we’ll be off to the races. And that’s gonna be forever.”
Taxiltaridis clearly has high expectations, which is appropriate considering his restaurant is housed in a $75 million building and seats 370 at full capacity. “If I fail at this restaurant, I’m really bad at my job,” Taxiltaridis says. “It’s beautiful. I think the view is amazing. I just gotta get people down here.” He says part of that is convincing people Boca isn’t seasonal.
A new menu offering heartier fare for the colder months went into effect on Nov. 1, but the fresh seafood and exceptional raw bar that were the hits of the summer remain. Taxiltaridis acknowledges some customers had a bad experience with service during Boca’s infancy, and concedes it took about a month and a half to hire the right staff and become a well-oiled machine. He believes once he gets you in the door, you’ll come back.
Entering Boca from a gorgeous lobby, we step into a large bar area tailor-made for happy hours and NFL Sundays. Everything is spacious, from the bar to the dining room to the outdoor patio. This is our third trip to Boca after two thoroughly enjoyable outdoor experiences back in August — the first for a media event and the second just for drinks before a night out in Bridgeport — but it’s our first time inside the restaurant. Oars, small buoys and nautical maps adorn the walls under a high, open ceiling. Looking out the window, unoccupied boat slips bob in Bridgeport Harbor, anxiously awaiting springtime inhabitants. Taxiltaridis says 95 boats are currently signed up, with space for about 100 more.
Whatever service woes Taxiltaridis spoke of from the opening weeks of Boca are not evident on this Friday night. Glasses are never empty, the table is wiped down between courses and silverware is swapped out. The beverage program is strong, as it should be at an establishment where both indoor and outdoor bars are prominent, with classic cocktails like a Manhattan and old fashioned and summertime favorites like a mojito and strawberry jalapeño margarita. The espresso martini and Goose Passion are superlative.
Chef Cisco Lopez is in charge of a large and varied menu that delivers in spades. The Boca Tartare app made with ahi tuna, cucumber, tomato and avocado is both fresh and refreshing, though the presentation has been changed since our visit; our dish was portioned into five wonton cups, but it is now served in a more traditional sushi form. Wedge salad has somehow snuck onto my list of personal favorites, and the Boca version is fantastic with slab bacon, heirloom grape tomatoes, frizzled onions and buttermilk blue cheese.
For entrées, one special that catches my eye right away is the pork osso bucca served over mushroom risotto with peas and a chianti demi sauce. It caught my taste buds even faster. There’s a sense of satisfaction when after one bite you know you ordered the right thing.
A 16-ounce prime New York strip with Gorgonzola cream sauce is a beautiful cut of beef cooked just right, but as an à la carte option is now into the $60 range with two sides. Boca’s intended clientele has money to burn — you don’t make room for 200 boat owners to sell ’em hot dogs — but that’s still a little steep.
As for the sides, the grilled asparagus are well-seasoned, thick stalks and the pancetta potato hash pops with flavor. The only problem is the hash is served bubbling hot in a cast-iron skillet. We’re about ready to order dessert by the time it’s cooled off enough to eat. Burning money is one thing, but burning your tongue — nobody signs up for that. Truth be told, I was very happy to have those potatoes for lunch the next day. An uber-rich chocolate layer cake and always-dependable brownie sundae capped off the meal.
Bridgeport still has a stain on its name. I’ve seen people contort into a bitter-beer face just at the mention of heading into the city. And that’s part of the challenge for Taxiltaridis. He mentions receiving the backhanded compliment of “I can’t believe this place is in Bridgeport.”
But maybe it’s time to bet on the Park City and its potential for growth. Taxiltaridis is surely optimistic. “We’re not trying to get to the bar,” he says. “We’re trying to raise the bar.”
He’s happy to leave “trying to get to the bar” to his customers.
Boca Oyster Bar
10 E. Main St., Bridgeport
Price range: Appetizers $8-$21, salads $13-$25, sandwiches $14-$19, flatbreads $13-$16, entrées $23-$60, sides $5-$9, desserts $9-$10
Hours: Daily 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
Ambiance: Big, new, clean and nautical. During the summer it was lively and packed. There’s live music Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
Service: Impeccable. One example: When I ordered the wedge salad I casually mentioned we’d be splitting it. It was brought out on two plates. Ask for Jacqueline. She’s a pro.
Food: At the August media event I was lucky enough to sample no less than 15 items and everything ranged from good to excellent.