Fish Tag Misfires With $26 Head Cheese-Stuffed Branzino: Review

Grilled Branzino
Grilled branzino stuffed with head cheese. Photographer: Paul Goguen/Bloomberg

Michael Psilakis was one of New York’s most promising chefs. At Anthos, now closed, he ran the city’s only Michelin-starred Greek restaurant.

Then he opened Fish Tag.

Got to feel bad for the Upper West Side, long in need of a first-rate seafood spot. Psilakis is serving Greek fare that’s often overwrought and unappetizing.

Reservationists might not answer your phone calls (how long will it ring?) Entrees might follow appetizers by less than 30 seconds; tea might be served without spoons, napkins or sugar; bartenders don’t always offer water; transferring tabs to your table is frowned upon.

Low ceilings ensure ear-piercing sound levels.

Bread service is on request, so speak up or you’ll go hungry waiting 20 minutes before eating anything, even though your appetizer, smoked sablefish, requires no cooking.

The silken slices exude so much gorgeous oil it’s as if the fish had been raised on omega-3 pills. Except that it’s paired with olive-oiled bread. Do we really need more fat?

Anthos was known for such inspired pairings as raw tuna with mastic. Here, we get Psilakis’s outtakes.

Yesterday’s Tide

Do not order mussels. You could be presented with a bowl of bland shellfish in an under-salted lamb broth that looks like dirty water.

With sea urchin, you need only cut open the spiny black exterior and plop a spoon into the orange roe. It’s nature’s soup bowl. Psilakis instead puts it in a stemmed glass and adds enough ocean water to give the slippery creatures the look and feel of something that came in with yesterday’s tide.

Fish Tag’s best fare is made elsewhere: Buttery smoked pastrami salmon, an impressive cheese board (16 varieties, all correctly served at room temperature) and a honey-chestnut gelato whose complementing flavors distinguish it as the grown-up ice cream of the year. It comes from Il Laboratorio del Gelato.

Yes, hunter-gatherer skills are essential for the 21st-century restaurateur. Not every place can be, say, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, which raises its own livestock and air dries its own charcuterie.

The problem is that much of what Fish Tag chooses to do in its own kitchen isn’t very good.

Flow Charts

Try to comprehend the Venn diagram of a menu. Mains and starters are classified according to five overlapping groups of hypothetical beverage pairings. A separate color-coding system - - red for smaller plates, black for larger ones -- makes it even more vexing (though on one visit I found a monochrome menu that used underlining to indicate dish size).

The results are often amusing, sometimes ridiculous. Four varieties of toast show up in four different spots on the menu. Let me simplify matters: Try the salt cod and skordalia cheese open-face sandwich. It’s a comforting, smoky riff on a tuna melt. Avoid the crab bruschetta, which uses sour eggplant and manouri cheese; the crustacean is all but virtually undetectable.

Fish Tag has a habit of taking expensive proteins and drowning them in a mash-up of ingredients. Are firm Ligurian noodles really paired with short ribs? The menu says so, but I couldn’t taste any beef amid the tomatoes and mozzarella.

Where’s the Shrimp?

Psilakis tops a giant smear of chili-spiked feta with flavorless, undercooked prawns. “Wait, there were shrimp in that?” a dining companion asked. My point exactly.

Chorizo overpowers an orzo-based paella, turning it into a single-note dish. Swordfish and Greek sausage, a clever surf-and-turf of oil and fat, needs something to cut the richness. And so it gets a bulgur salad with a pucker-inducing dose of lemon juice. The taste is straight out of a deli.

The same pickled vegetables that set the unctuous salmon in lively high relief reappeared later to demolish our cheese sampler.

And yet, is there better, moister branzino anywhere? Surely not. Too bad it’s wrapped like a Yule log around head cheese so gritty and cartilaginous it triggers the gag reflex.

Fish Tag isn’t the worst restaurant of the year, but it’s certainly the most disappointing.

Every now and then the Psilakis splendor comes through. Bone marrow with scallops, not a new pairing, works just as well here as at fancier restaurants. Sturgeon with basil, and smoked octopus with pickled mushrooms evoke the awesome Anthos era of refinement and balance. More of these would serve Fish Tag and its customers well. Rating: *

The Bloomberg Questions

Cost: All dishes $26 or under.

Sound Level: 80-85 decibels when full. Extremely loud.

Date Place: It’s a great, neutral breakup place.

Inside Tip: A lamb burger, doing its best impression of kefta, stays moist even when well done.

Special Feature: Ask for the excellent rose water petits fours.

Will I be back: Doubtful.

Fish Tag is at 222 W. 79th St. near Broadway. Information: +1-212-362-7470;

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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