I’m fantasizing about the Naked Cowboy. In my dream, I bend down and purse my lips and begin sucking all the goodness from within. I tilt my head back, letting the briny juices glide down my throat. I close my eyes and swallow. Yes, the Naked Cowboy is a damn fine oyster.
Naked Cowboys (named after the Times Square performer) are one of the many bivalves offered at the John Dory Oyster Bar, Ken Friedman and April Bloomfield’s new seafood emporium adjacent to the Ace Hotel. Technically, this NoMad (that’s North of Madison Square Park) location marks the second incarnation, the original having lasted less than a year on a desolate stretch of Tenth Avenue in Chelsea. Foot traffic isn’t a problem here—the space buzzes nightly with trendsetters and foodies. Not surprisingly, Friedman and Bloomfield also run the popular Breslin on the other side of the hotel.
Unlike its dark and clubby neighbor, this dining room is airy and sun-drenched, and outfitted to the extreme with a marine motif. Two globe-like aquariums overlook the bar, trophy fish and posters of crustaceans adorn the walls, and light fixtures are hideously fashioned from large seashells. Think tacky Caribbean beach shack meets hip lounge, with a touch of Gymboree, thanks to the bright green and blue bar chairs. Circular copper tables set the stage for cozy dining. That’s actually an advantage, because the restaurant has forsaken entrées for a menu of small plates. Inconsistency, though, mars the food. When the restaurant puts on its game face, boy, does it shine. But when it falters, it’s really adrift.
Oysters get marquee billing, so start there. East and West Coast represent at $3 apiece, the selection changing frequently (try the excellent Shigokus if available). Nasal-clearing horseradish and chile-flecked mignonette, elegantly presented in empty oyster shells, garnish the precisely shucked slurpers. Parsley and anchovy toast ($4) sounds prosaic, but naysayers will clamor for more after falling under the spell of the luscious and earthy pesto finished with a whisper of lemon and garlic.
Among the larger options, panade ($13) recalls the best French onion soup you’ve ever tried, only it’s cheese-less and made with rich lobster stock instead of beef. The creamy oyster pan roast ($14) also dances along the precipice of decadence, while the accompanying uni-butter-slathered crostino evokes the pleasures of a summer dip in cold, brackish waters. Warm and yeasty (though pricey at $4), Parker House rolls can sop up the extra sauce. Even a simple escarole salad ($9) bursts with flavor—both raw and grilled leaves are Caesarified with a vibrant anchovy and Parmesan dressing and crowned with a generous sprinkling of golden bread crumbs.
But amid the delectable lurks the disappointing. Crudo are underwhelming—salt, pepper, and Meyer lemon completely mask the sea bream ($13), while both fluke with watercress and crispy quinoa ($13) and razor-clam ceviche ($11) are portraits of sad blandness. Meanwhile, $15 kedgeree—an Anglo-Indian rice dish studded with smoked fish—was so salty one evening it was nearly inedible. And octopus ($15) that was tender on my first visit was overcooked and rubbery the second time around, unsalvaged by the aioli-slicked fingerlings.
Come dessert, Eccles cake ($8) reveals Bloomfield’s Britishness, and the currant-stuffed pastry pairs nicely with its sliver of Stilton. Rich and velvety chocolate ice cream sprinkled with honeycomb ($7) bests the other frozen option, a $7 lemon-mascarpone-pistachio mashup drowning in a deluge of limoncello.
While not a restaurant I see myself returning to frequently, the new John Dory is worth a visit, for sure. Drop by during off-hours or for lunch—you’ll avoid the throngs and hour-long waits and people who think they’re the only fish in the sea.