Tossing Tentacles at the John Dory
Tropical fish cavort in an aquarium behind the bar, dolphins dive synchronously over the door, and steel-blue anchovies swim in the raw bar's clear Lucite, as a Roman mosaic spills angular seafood onto the floor. Then there are the fish plates, fish charts, fish tiles, translucent fish light baffles, and fish bas-reliefs. "This place is way over-decorated," my date observed, doing a 360-degree turn of the room. "It worked at the Spotted Pig, but it doesn't work here."
We were sitting at the raw bar at the John Dory, the only seats available unless you reserve weeks ahead. Walk in and sit down at around six in the evening, and watch as the wealthy arrive to claim their tables. The John Dory is the latest project of Spotted Pig chef April Bloomfield. Named after a largish deep-sea fish beloved of Brits that grows a fake eye on its side to discourage predators, the restaurant sits on lower Tenth Avenue at the ass-end of Chelsea Market, a strip that has improbably become the city's most upscale restaurant row.
Compared to nearby behemoths like Morimoto, Del Posto, and Craftsteak, the John Dory is relatively small and manageable, consisting of a bar, a pair of picayune dining rooms, and the seating that we occupied along the counter. This counter barely separates you from the narrow kitchen, allowing you to watch the cooking staff of 10 play Twister as they prepare your shore dinner. While the John Dory's décor reminds you of a Yankee fish house in Massachusetts or Maine, only half of its menu is devoted to traditionally prepared seafood. The balance plumbs the depths for creatures that can be served as stylish ceviches and crudos.
As has been reported, the menu is sometimes shockingly expensive. On our first visit, a half-dozen oysters set us back $24, though a general outcry resulted in a $6 discount by our second visit. From a choice of West and East coast varieties, these bivalves are as fresh as an Arctic breeze, accompanied by a spicy green cilantro mignonette and a fluorescent-orange carrot relish. Also among the uncooked selections is a choice of two scallops: tiny Nantucket Bays ($16), slicked with olive oil and a little sea salt, and a single large "day boat" scallop that comes sliced and squirted with colorful sauces. The best of the uncooked selections is the yellowtail, cut into fat matchsticks and dribbled with ginger oil, which is made crunchy with shreds of purple shallot and flakes of charred skin. What a beautiful picture it made on the plate!
We weren't so impressed with the octopus ($20): Rather than meaty appendages, we were served delicate baby tentacles tossed with bottarga (dried cod roe) in a fussy and lackluster salad. The minced razor clams were much better, napped with a zippy, bright-green parsley sauce. That stunning sauce is Bloomfield's signature, and we saw it again and again in its verdant variations. It came, for example, on cod milt (fish sperm, $16), a dish that defines just how far the menu will go to deliver novel seafood sensations. While this may conjure up images of ejaculating fish and hapless under-chefs running after them with paper cups, the semen comes in a sac that fries up like sweetbreads. For aficionados of weird food, it's delicious.
Naturally, the John Dory serves John Dory, and a variation of the green sauce came on the pair of crisp-skinned fillets we sampled one evening. A week later, a whole John Dory ($50) was available as an entrée for two, smothered in the same sauce. The whole-fish selection (which changes frequently) often includes a pair of fine red mullets in an adventuresome sauce of clementines and puntarella that was a tad too sweet, and a sea bass heaped with a green anchovy sauce that mated perfectly with the fish.
Certain entrées are perhaps too predictable—a fish soup ($30), for example, predicated on bouillabaisse. The brick-red broth is unimpeachable, and the assortment of shellfish and fish fillets is impressive. Still, the soup is a little boring as you spoon your way through it. More adventuresome are the pair of splendid squid carapaces stuffed with Spanish chorizo—in a recipe swiped from Casa Mono—and a Dungeness crab in a sauce so peppery that it made my nose run (it was probably inspired by Fatty Crab). There's also an oyster pan roast—a Yankee standard—filled with so much flavor that you may never want to eat the Oyster Bar's version again.
Then again, on second thought, maybe blandness is the whole point of a pan roast.
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