In this food-crazed metropolis, the success of one or two emporium-cum-eatery concepts has spawned a raft of unworthy clones. A few chairs near the salad bar at the greengrocer and they think they're Dean & Deluca; a table or two at the neighborhood bakery for breakfast nibblers and they're trying to spell Payard. Fish, a combination spot whose business card boasts retail, restaurant, and raw bar is a logical conclusion. But miraculously, it's done with style, wit, and both kinds of taste.
A sidewalk chalkboard advertises the oysters of the day: Belons, Malpeques, Skookums, Kumomotos, and more. A fish outlined in the cement threshold gently reinforces the place's name, and a display window worthy of being sculpted by Palissy in a piscatory mood completes the job. A carved wooden bar and a few café tables mark the front of the house, creating the kind of den where absinthe was sold in more dangerous times. Serious dining goes on behind the swagged gray velvet portière that serves as a room divider. There, brick walls, a silvered tin ceiling, and distressed tile floors create a cozy space that combines bistro style with New York edge. While more than 25 varieties of oysters are listed, the dinner menu fits on one sheet, and nearly every item begs investigation.
My friend and I arrived late and ravenous to find the kitchen cooking and the welcome warm. I was charmed even before ordering by the attention to detail revealed when a pinwheel of citrus wedges arrived with the bottle of Pellegrino and slices of chewy onion foccacia appeared in the breadbasket. We both settled on the haricot vert salad ($7.50). My friend took it as offered with grilled portabello, marinated goat cheese, and a ring of roasted red peppers, I edited it down to the tiny, crisply tender veggies, and we both savored a wonderfully mild dressing permeated with minced onion. I followed with a flaky grilled halibut ($19) topped with a sauce vierge that I'm sure Mary would have loved even if the name refers to the olive oil, as I suspect: a mix of finely minced carrot, zucchini, parsley, fennel, and celery in a flavorful sauce that alternated lemon and garlic. Although the coriander and ginger of the marinade overwhelmed my friend's whole-baked tandoori sea bream ($21) and left none of its delicate taste, neither of us was complaining as we finished up with expresso, listened to Satchmo sing Gershwin, and struck off into the late night.
Glistening fresh sardines in the window augured well when I returned a few weeks later. Soon they arrived, grilled and napped with a sauce of minced black olives, tomatoes, and anchovies. My friend decided on potato leek soup garnished with flakes of smoked trout. We shared a special risotto with morels, ramp, spinach, and asiago that sounded and was too delicious to pass up. My friend revisited the halibut and loved it as I had. My sweet, tender slab of rice-paper-wrapped salmon ($18) was enhanced by the slightly salty miso broth, and there was just enough liquid left to be soaked up by the accompanying rice. Then it was sorbets ($6): a darkly sweet blackberry-cabernet, a tartly citrus grapefruit-Campari, and a warmly astringent passion fruit, the perfect ending to another evening spent night fishing.
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