The classic New York clam shack, with its pale beer, red-stained Dixie plates and bivalves on the half-shell, has generally resisted the forces that make everything in this city unaffordable.
Until ZZ’s Clam Bar arrived in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village this summer. It’s among our most expensive restaurants.
Torrisi Italian Specialties, brought to us by the people behind ZZ’s, serves an eight-to-ten-course menu for $100.
ZZ’s sells a single plate of beef carpaccio for $105.
Good thing it’s great beef: a posh Italian variety called Chianina that yields to my tongue its ethereal flavor and fineness.
There’s caviar too. While other high-end spots charge $100 and up for 30 grams of sturgeon roe, ZZ’s tops that beef with 45 grams of Petrossian. It starts with a sucker punch of brine and ends with a bracing metallic finish.
The chefs further anoint the carpaccio with Santa Barbara sea urchin plus two or three silky raw langoustines that could fetch $30 by themselves.
So call it a deal, because this carpaccio alla Abramovich, which feeds two, might easily command $175 instead of $105.
ZZ’s offers no rice, no formal bread service, no soups, no chowders, no hot entrees. Cynics will say this means you’ll go broke before you get full, which is true.
The place is also an antidote to those three- and four-hour tasting menus dominating the upper echelons of modern fine dining. Most of my repasts at the Clam Bar lasted under two hours.
ZZ’s looks like a studio apartment equipped with seating for 12 at four tables, all of them taken. So you opt for the counter. Jazz is playing softly in the background. The room is lit by a dim chandelier, little oil lamps and, occasionally, a blowtorch. The fiery tool belongs to a Rasputin-bearded barman in white tuxedo who’s burning a stick of cinnamon for a coconut cocktail that costs $20.
You acquiesce to that fee because the bartender, Thomas Waugh, is mixing New York’s best drinks. The tipple is presented in a whole coconut shell. A straw allows you to simultaneously imbibe the strong rum and inhale the fragrant spice.
How about a margarita? Waugh gives us blanco tequila shaken with watermelon (not too sweet) and Serrano chili (more vegetal than spicy). I drank it with my heady amuse bouche, a silver-dollar-size piece of warm potato bread topped with littlenecks, razor clams, oregano and garlic.
You might follow that up with uni on salty, malty bread ($30), to which ZZ’s adds stinging mustard oil.
Even better is tuna on olive bread ($17), a mash of lean bluefin, chili and EVOO.
The piquant flavors and subtle heat make it a compact improvement on the traditional Nicoise salad. Best of all these carb-based dishes is trout roe toast ($22), with firm fish eggs enrobed in truffle honey and shaved summer truffles. This is how you turn pedestrian “red caviar” into a fancy, aromatic three-Michelin-star affair.
The hits keep on coming. There are scallops drenched in brown butter (practically dessert), lightly-seared golden eye snapper topped with kaffir lime and strawberries (just a few bites for $44) and fatty kanpachi with Chinese-style broccoli and oyster sauce ($27).
There are misses too. Clam and lobster ceviches both pack enough acid to wash any flavor out of the expensive shellfish. And at these prices, the servers ought to replace utensils between courses.
No knife necessary for the $56 tuna carpaccio with foie gras, evoking the famous Le Bernardin pairing. Sorry, ZZ’s is better. The shaved duck liver melts like ice cream over the soft tuna, sweet scallops, sweeter razor clams and ultra-rich bone marrow. It’s a brilliant surf-and-turf.
At least the clams are only $1.50 a pop (when the market allows). The littlenecks are briny. The top necks are tender. Both are fleshy, pink and go perfectly with a cocktail sauce chaser. That’s one way to enjoy a Champagne setting on a beer budget.
The Bloomberg Questions:
Price: $150-$200 per person, as much as, say, 15 East.
Sound Level: Usually reasonable (65-70 decibels).
Date Place: Yes, but have a spending plan.
Inside Tip: Short wines-by-the-glass list; Champagne (Pierre Moncuit) starts at $20 the glass.
Special Feature: Excellent orange sherbet ($10).
Back on my own dime? For cocktails and clams.
ZZ’s Clam Bar is at 169 Thompson Street. Information: +1-212-254-3000; http://www.zzsclambar.com.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Manuela Hoelterhoff on music and Greg Evans on TV.