Tableside with a Somm: Island Creek Oyster Bar

Curious about restaurant wine lists? Each month, Boston Globe wine columnist Ellen Bhang chats with a sommelier about a couple of terrific bottles and recommends food pairings—you come away a savvier sipper.

Growing up in Wilmington, North Carolina, Lindsay Howard loved to help her parents entertain. “I wanted to be the life of the party,” she says unabashedly. “I was good at shucking oysters and opening Champagne.”

It seems written in the stars that Howard, now wine director of Island Creek Oyster Bar in Kenmore Square, would become a sommelier. But the wine pro will tell you she had more exploring to do before embracing that path. Her love of words prompted her to study poetry as an undergraduate at Davidson College in North Carolina. A few years later, she earned a master’s degree in gastronomy at Boston University. Between academic programs, she worked as a server in fine dining establishments, including Galley Beach in Nantucket, and traveled extensively.

On one particular jaunt through Europe, she arrived in Burgundy, France, during festivities for the annual wine auction of the Hospices de Beaune. “I was eating frog legs and drinking wine in the streets,” she recalls, still tickled by the memory.

She was undaunted by twists and turns in the road. On a cross-country trip to California, her travel companion’s car broke down near the southern Idaho border. While waiting for a new engine to arrive, she explored the local wine scene and learned about harvesting caviar at a sturgeon farm. “The stories that food and wine illuminated excited me,” she says. “I fell in love with telling stories and getting people excited about sustainable, artisanal products.”

Howard’s undeniable zest for life is reflected in ICOB’s hundred-bottle list. The bivalve-celebrating restaurant is a hot ticket in Kenmore Square, much like its sister eatery on the same block, Eastern Standard. The program leans toward the Old World, with a focus on sparkling and white wines, particularly those sporting a bit of age and skin contact. Reds that pair with rich seafood dishes, plus small-production pours from California, round out the selection.

A 2016 Pet-Nat Rosé from Brand is crafted by two young winemaker brothers in Germany’s Pfalz region. “It’s like fresh raspberry juice with a hint of funk,” says Howard, explaining that the magenta-hued pétillant naturel gets its effervescence from completing fermentation in the bottle. It’s excellent with executive chef Nicola Hobson’s Chatham bluefin toro crudo, which arrives with torched jalapeño, micro basil, and yellow watermelon. The raw fish is sprinkled with Maldon sea salt and adorned with the restaurant’s own brand of farm-raised sturgeon caviar. The wine—made from pinot noir and portugieser grapes—offers plenty of palate-cleansing refreshment between bites of marbled tuna belly.

A 2013 riesling from Nikolaihof, one of the oldest wine estates in Austria, is a sumptuous splurge. The bottle’s name, “Vom Stein,” refers to one of the producer’s top vineyard sites, and is classified as Smaragd, the most coveted category of the Wachau region. Describing it as “extremely bright, salty, and mineral driven,” Howard recommends it with the pork-and-shrimp sausage, flavored with lemongrass, Thai basil, and fish sauce. It’s plated with summer succotash and a pea vine pesto.

Watching Howard converse with guests is a beautiful thing. “It’s very rewarding,” she enthuses about the life she has chosen. “I use my love for words to help people figure out what kinds of wines they like.”

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