It all began when my editor and I went out to celebrate my completing a manuscript scarcely more than a year late. She suggested a new place where she’d had a grand meal and we headed off to Marseille, a nouveau né on the increasingly gentrified Ninth Avenue edge of the theater district. The large room was abuzz with new-restaurant energy. Maître d’ and sommelier floated about soliciting opinions and capturing kudos, lovelies at the reception desk provided glam, and a clutch of waiters anticipated every need with ease. We were seated at a corner banquette in the large dining room that cribbed decor from the grand cafés of Montparnasse—tiled floors, varnished woods, and red leatherette banquettes.
The Mediterranean-influenced menu paid homage to France’s southern port. Following my guide’s lead, I selected the oxtails and beef cheeks as my main ($18). The textural contrasts of the chewily tender tail meat and the lush softness of the cheeks played well with the accompanying large-grain Israeli couscous. We differed on appetizers. She chose the haricot vert salad, crisply blanched baby green beans tossed with endive, radicchio, and walnuts rendered splendid by an unctuous blue cheese dressing ($9). I found my bliss under the heading “Mezze Sea.” One item transfixed me—whitebait served with rouget. Strangely in our increasingly piscatorial universe, whitebait does not star on many Gotham menus, but the tiny transparent fry of the herring family are the fish of my dreams. The order arrived on two small square plates, one adorned with a small, delicate piece of grilled rouget, the other brimming with perfectly fried, crisp yet slightly sweet whitebait ($8). Delighted, I asked the ever hovering maître d’ and was assured that whitebait would always be on the menu—if not the main one, the bar one.
Two weeks was too long without, so the arrival of a fish-starved friend from the Midwest prompted much bragging and a return visit. Knowing whitebait’s elusiveness, I even double-checked upon reserving and was assured that it was indeed still available. Seated in the same corner, we were presented with the menu that I didn’t feel I needed—’cause I’d arrived ready to snag a double order of whitebait and one of the haricot salads. To my amazement, where whitebait once had reigned, Marseille now offered an assortment of fennel salad, belon oyster, and mussel brochette. A hurried consultation with the waiter revealed that the menu had been tweaked and the tiny fish I craved removed. Even the beef cheeks had been transformed—short ribs replaced oxtails and hummus had been added. The Heraclitean flux left me adrift; I wanted simpler fare, and so settled on a reprise of the haricot salad and sautéed skate ($16), requesting that the oh-so-complex preserved lemon, date, and mussel sauce be left off. The skate was delicate and well prepared, but a disappointing substitute for the crunch I’d anticipated.
My friend settled on a wild-mushroom soup served with a parmesan foam and the conceit of three perfectly fried mushrooms ($7). When it arrived tepid, with the explanation that the foam cooled down the soup, it went back for a reheat, and at proper temperature proved dense with dusky fungus flavor. He followed with a dry-aged sirloin ($24), several slices fanned out alongside a small ramekin of a cunningly savory bone marrow flan and a vegetable mix of potatoes, carrots, and artichoke bottoms—tasty but disappointing to one who came for fish. Even the previously able wait staff seemed flummoxed, and required prompting for bread and again butter. Nothing was truly wrong, but neither was anything completely right. I left with a silent plea: When I ask what’s on the menu, tell me.