FishTag's Mussel Men of the Upper West Side
Recent months haven't been great for restaurant names. The Fat Radish. Goat Town. Sensebowl. And now FishTag. Let's play word association for a minute. Did "skin tag" come to mind? It did for me. It also reminded me of the fuzzy parasite that latched on to and killed my childhood pet goldfish (RIP, Rainbow).
Yet despite the misguided moniker, the food at Michael Psilakis's ambitious new Upper West Side seafood joint (Ryan Skeen is chef de cuisine) can be quite impressive—once you decipher the bill of fare, that is.
"Here's one menu, which lists cheeses, charcuterie, and smoked fish, and beer and other beverages," said the waiter on my first visit. "And this here is the other, with dinner options. Dishes are listed from lightest to heaviest, and on the sides you'll see suggested beverages. And because everything's mixed in together, you'll see that appetizers are listed in red while entrées are black."
222 West 79th Street
Inside FishTag: An Upper West Side Seafood Joint
"I can't—I'm color-blind," said one of my dining companions. The rest of us weren't doing much better.
FishTag occupies the cozy, below-street-level space formerly inhabited by Psilakis's Gus & Gabriel Gastropub and his first iteration of Kefi. Now it's stripped down and decorated in Cape Cod–ish whites, grays, and blacks. As with Kefi, the menu nods to the Aegean, with olives, rapini, peppers, lamb, and lemons often accompanying the seafood stars.
Dive into the smoked octopus ($13), which tastes more grilled than smoked but is as tender as can be, plated alongside chorizo slices, mushrooms, and broccolini—a symphony of contrasting flavors and textures. Another winner is raw sea urchin ($14) bathing in the Japanese ocean water in which it once swam, served in a tall-stemmed glass and garnished with lemon juice and a few peppercorns. You'll appreciate its simplicity, especially since garnishes frequently overwhelm here—the $15 scallop crudo goes adrift amid lardo, pomegranates, beets, pistachio, and bone marrow, for example. But don't let those excesses stop you from ordering bruschetta slathered with shrimp, feta, and enough members of the allium family ($11) to prevent any imminent make-out sessions.
Like at Kefi, sheep's-milk dumplings ($19) grace the menu, although here they luxuriate in sea urchin fonduta dotted with scallops and crab meat. The dumplings are as light as gossamer, though they need to be. The dish is so rich and decadent I can't imagine eating an entire portion alone, so hopefully your dining party will be into sharing. Another outstanding dish was the grilled branzino stuffed with head cheese ($26). Resembling a sausage flanked by mushrooms and braised greens, it's like a culinary centaur of land and sea. Farm and ocean also tango in the Bouchot mussels and spicy lamb entrée ($22), which comes with both merguez and shredded lamb plus two slices of chewy toast to soak up all the spicy broth.
Skip the Greek spoon salad ($10), an assortment of finely chopped vegetables, olive-laden and served awkwardly on a cake stand—and without a spoon to boot! The striped bass ($23) atop braised greens made me think I'd been served white bass, given its extremely muddy taste. And I wish desserts were more than scoops of Il Laboratorio del Gelato ($5), even though the chestnut honey flavor evokes the sweetness of a Mediterranean summer.
FishTag features three marble bars that span the hallway to the main dining area—this is probably the best spot to order from the charcuterie menu. Along with a glass or two of wine from the extensive list (organized by style, and available in three-, six-, 14-, and 27-ounce servings), it's a nice after-work drinks roost.
Also a wine bar, you say? Yes, there's a lot going on at FishTag. The high-aspiring cuisine is a welcome departure from the usual, and clearly a lot of energy went into creating the menu—occasionally too much: Certain dishes are over-thought to the point of confusion. If only they'd simplified, then channeled some of that brain power into the place's name instead.
More photos here: Inside FishTag: An Upper West Side Seafood Joint
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