Fair Maidens

Notes from an Underground Herring Festival

It's hard to adequately describe the look that came over the face of the man behind the counter at The Oyster Bar in Grand Central station the other night when I inquired about the herring. It was a pre-vomit face, mixed with a rolling of the eyes that implied "you'd have to be crazy." But then he said, with a go-figure shrug, "People love them. Love them!"

The annual Herring Festival takes place at the famous underground seafood restaurant over next two weeks. It began last Monday at noon, when the first box of Maatjes herring finally arrived at 42nd street, straight from the Netherlands. (Maatjes, meaning "maidens," is a distinction applied only to young lady herrings who have never been knocked up.) This is the time of year when the fish, which swim in schools, begin their migration. They are caught in Scheveningen and filleted immediately, then dipped twice in brine and eaten as soon as possible.

The festival, which has none of the pomp normally associated with such celebrations (balloons, streamers, funnel cake), was delayed this year, because the herring were just too small to be fêted. The season was originally expected to begin at the end of May, and it's easy to imagine a small but passionate herring following that has been absolutely tortured for the past two weeks.

Ignoring the waiter's face, I sampled the purest version (an appetizer, for $5.95), which is freshly filleted, not the pickled incarnation we have all encountered (that version is beloved in its own right, but certainly no rare delicacy). The maiden, about five inches long, arrives at room temperature, with condiments chopped up and in little piles: onion, hard-boiled egg, and chives. It has been neatly split and boned, with the head off but the tail still attached. Apparently, the tail is meant to help you pick the fish up and pop it into your mouth. I attempted no such thing, instead using a knife and fork like a real nerd, and washing it down with a Heineken.

If you enjoy raw fatty fish of a certain intensity—think mackerel rather than toro—get yourself to Grand Central Station before it's too late. This fish is the most delightful and unique combination of dense, soft, salty, and oily. It's too fresh to be called fishy; it's really the oiliness, I imagine, that causes people to dislike it. There is absolutely no flake to the flesh—its consistency is somewhat similar to a thick piece of gravlox.

For the sake of thoroughness I also tried the Dutch herring salad, which was a pink mound on top of a piece of butter lettuce. The color comes from beets and mayonnaise, but there is apple and onion incorporated as well, and the herring was difficult to detect. Curiously, this dish, at $6.50, costs more than the whole, pristine filet. It's the sort of salad that's hard to understand if you do not have an Old World grandma who instilled in you a love for similar dishes early in life.

I finished the herring off with a bowl of the restaurant's famed New England clam chowder and then looked to my waiter who asked, "Okay—now what's for dinner?"

 
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