The John Dory Returns With Porky Mussels, $4 Rolls: Ryan Sutton
New York’s seafood temples understand everyone doesn’t eat fish, which explains the roast duck at Le Bernardin or the dry-aged sirloin at Marea.
And then there’s The John Dory Oyster Bar. It serves just a single meat dish, a roast pork sandwich slathered in tuna sauce.
Don’t hold the sauce in this riff on classic vitello tonnato. The delicate flesh provides a sublime launching pad for the briny, caper-studded dressing. Such is the Michelin-starred brilliance of April Bloomfield, who’s never shy with strong flavors and fatty fare.
Bloomfield could easily have drawn a packed house with fried calamari, lobster rolls and burgers. Instead she challenges the senses with idiosyncratic, ingenious dishes that disregard borders. This is the chef whose only burger comes with Roquefort at The Spotted Pig and who serves beef pies spiked with pungent Stilton at the Breslin. So it goes that her reincarnated The John Dory in the Ace Hotel doesn’t dumb down seafood to make it taste like steak. Here, fish tastes like fish.
Is it possible to intensify the sting of jiggly sea urchin? Sure, just serve it in its shell. A few beads of pomegranate stand in for the fish roe you’d expect. It’s a gorgeous preparation and it smells like the open sea.
Our waiter warned that Belon oysters ($4.50 each) were “not for beginners.” He was right. They’re not small and slurpable. They’re knife and fork, three-bite bivalves. They’re ethnically French, though farmed in Maine to the count of a few thousand a year. They taste like the Atlantic Ocean with a metallic finish.
The old John Dory, which closed in 2009 after an unsuccessful run in West Chelsea, tamed its edgy appetizers (cod sperm) with more traditional whole-fish entrees that surly cooks would refuse to bone. It didn’t really work.
The new Dory does. The larger, louder uptown space breathes life into a corner of the Garment District with giant windows, fish tanks and a small-plates menu. That’s right, no entrees. The new John Dory serves no John Dory. It’s not a place to linger; it’s a gastro-diner that expects you to get in, get your fix of smoky chorizo stuffed squid, and get out.
That means no reservations, no tablecloths, no free snacks (peanuts are $3.50) and no free bread (Parker House rolls are $4). New York State Riesling is dispensed not from a bottle but a beer tap. Most of the restaurant’s seats are not at tables but at copper and marble counters.
This is all the apotheosis of what many hate. Bloomfield is probably okay with that, and so am I because I’ve never waited more than 15 minutes for a seat. And the pricey rolls have enough butter to serve as a poor hipster’s meal. Even better is the $11 flatbread; two wafers sandwich a slick of butter, chili and cured mullet roe. The fishy, spicy treat is a fisherman’s version of a midnight refrigerator snack.
Escabeche, a Mediterranean preparation of poached and marinated fish, takes on a British flair. Bloomfield quells the oil of mackerel by dousing it in vinegar, peppercorns and bay leaf.
Mussels stuffed with porky mortadella gives Italy its proper due; it’s a dish that walks a very fine line between assertive and downright foul, coming out on the plus side of the equation with elan.
Smoked haddock terrine is a tastier than New England lobster chowder, a failed $14 effort: Too much heavy cream masks any shellfish flavor. Bloomfield has better luck using lobster stock in a French onion soup-style panade baked with yeasty filone, buttery onions and fennel. Is it too sweet? Add aioli, and it’s perfect.
The pan roast dots every other table, perhaps because it’s better than the heart clogging, textureless original at Grand Central’s Oyster Bar, with its warm Blue Points and heavy squirt of Worcestershire sauce. The Dory version is essentially a cup of fish stock-enriched cream, with plump, barely warmed-through Mystics. A slice of uni crostini intoxicates with a briny, buttery crunch.
Cleanse the plate with raw mollusks, perhaps a spicy razor clam ceviche (citrus coaxes the rubbery creatures into submission) and then some Nantucket Bay scallops. The Dory anoints the tiny knobs with olive oil, lemon and sea salt. Pair it with that bright Riesling from the beer tap. Who needs Siasconset?
The Bloomberg Questions
Prices: All dishes (save the whole crab) are under $20.
Sound Level: Loud when full, around 75 decibels.
Date Place: Maybe. Not for high-maintenance types.
Inside tip: Malted ice cream with honey comb for dessert.
Special Feature: Excellent haddock-studded Kedgeree.
Will I be back: Yes, for seasonal shellfish.
The John Dory Oyster Bar is at 1196 Broadway, at the Ace Hotel. Information: +1-212-792-9000 or http://thejohndory.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels):
51 to 55: Church on a weekday. 56 to 60: The vegetable aisle at the Food Emporium. 61 to 65: Keyboards clacking at the office. 66 to 70: My alarm clock when it goes off inches from my ear. 71 to 75: Corner deli at lunchtime. 76 to 80: Back of a taxi with advertisements at full volume. 81 to 85: Loud, crowded subway with announcements.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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