Ultra-Atkins

None dare call it dinner at Cleveland Place crudoteria

"Will you be staying for dinner?" the greeter asked, a bit disingenuously, I thought afterward. Was she discouraging customers from dropping in for a snack? We replied in the affirmative, and were ushered into a long, narrow space. The laminated wood bar looked like it was once a bowling alley lane, and wine bottles were racked horizontally behind it, including Strobismo by Villa Paradiso, its label painted with a pair of mesmerizing female eyes. Repeated several places along the wall, it caused the diners perched on their stools to look up uneasily from time to time.

Bar Tonno is foremost among a spate of new restaurants taking advantage of the current mania for uncooked seafood, whether sushi, ceviche, or—the latest fad—crudo, an Italian invention that was confined to a small area around Venice until recently. But while a sushi bar fills out its menu with appetizers, salads, soups, and bowls of steaming rice, Bar Tonno ("tuna bar" in Italian) offers a menu almost completely devoid of anything but small morsels of raw seafood. A basket of Sardinian crackers and pizza bianca is nearly the only refuge for starch-desperate diners.

We ordered liberally, even expansively, from a collection of 20 dishes that changes daily. In addition to not mentioning that all the fish is raw—with the exception of a small plate of shellfish stew with a Sardinian couscous called fregola—the menu doesn't indicate that even items in the $10 through $15 range represent relatively small amounts of seafood. Expect to dine on three or four dishes per person, and go away hungry. It's a great place for wine and a snack, but it's damn near impossible to piece together an entire meal at Bar Tonno.

Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall
Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall

Nevertheless, the fish is impeccably fresh, the seasonal selection outstanding, and the preparation a product of culinary genius. Fluke Sicilian-style ($11) sails in on a plate of pebbled glass, wafer-thin slices dusted with hot red paprika, dribbled with olive oil, and garnished with tiny cubes of lemon, grapefruit, and orange. Microgreens sprout at various locations, looking like trees seen from a helicopter. Sardine fillet ($5) is a thumb-sized piece of dark flesh with quicksilver skin; the surprisingly mild flavor is set off by pale green raindrops of artichoke puree and dabs of concentrated tomato relish. Of the two oyster choices per evening, pick the one served with pomegranate gelée—the wobbly red jelly constitutes an extraordinary oyster intensifier. Some dishes reach for flavors and textures that can only be described as bizarre—the raw squid "pasta" has an ultra-gooey mouthfeel, while slivers of needlefish exude a jelly that could double as sex lubricant.

What is it you're eating? You might be tempted to call it new-style sashimi, à la Nobu and Bond Street, only searing fish is their signature technique, and Bar Tonno doesn't bother. The offerings also fall outside the crudo canon, which involves simple presentations with olive oil and sea salt. Bar Tonno is intent on breaking the rules, using fish in spectacular ways not circumscribed by any dining tradition. The wine list, too, is brilliant. Such quirky bottles as an Italian pecorino ($32)—a white grape with a flinty and musty taste—go very well indeed with the cool thrill of raw fish.

Bar Tonno is worth experiencing. Just don't expect dinner.

 
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