There’s a particular kind of food lover whose love is pure but strange to us. Pork chops and T-bones have no power over him—he only has eyes for the sea. Often, this man has spent the sweetest days of his life near the water. As he gets older and harder of hearing, it won’t matter that the pleasures of the world no longer call to him: He will always have crabmeat with mayonnaise, a dozen cold oysters, and fish made glorious in a pan of foaming butter.
He will have whelks, too, if they’re on the menu—snails from the sea curled in their gray-green shells, who taste quite nice with a dab of mayo and a squeeze of lemon, if only you can get past their terrible looks. Can you? To reach them, you must hook their feet and yank at their slick, bouncy bodies with a tiny fork. Out they pop, the ugly bastards.
There are whelks at Prima, where the French chef David Malbequi poaches them for half an hour in aromatic water then chills them in their shells. Prima opened in the East Village last fall, the second restaurant from Hamid Rashidzada and Greg Seider, who met while working at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Mercer Kitchen and went on to open Summit Bar together. They have not gussied up Prima with silly maritime knickknackery—knotted ropes, vintage photos of ships—to indicate that they are serving fish. Nor do they offer the seafood lover a prolonged, erotic, expensive experience to reaffirm the value of his obsession. Prima is for the everyday—for when a hard seat, a cold drink, and a hot fish will do you nicely.
The tiny bay scallops are an elegant kind of sweet and sour, served on a half shell with Orleans mustard and a kumquat dressing ($3). A ceviche of mackerel ($8) is cubed roughly and seasoned precisely with lemon, olive oil, and chives, presented in a bowl set over crushed ice. The fish becomes brighter and colder as you work your way in; it’s lovely. Stop by during happy hour for two-for-one oysters and fine cocktails, or earlier in the day for pastries and expert coffee from Ninth Street Espresso.
But the inflexible seafood lover will find his bliss with the dinner entrées: skate, snapper, Arctic char, daurade, all served huge, hot, with a crisp and beautiful skin that has been washed over with bonito butter, the meat finished in the oven for not a moment too long ($15 to $22). Each plate is a reminder of why fish cookery is one of the most highly valued skills of the classic French kitchen. There’s a battered and fried hake on the list, too ($16), for which tartar sauce is a natural choice, but otherwise, the sauces listed are irrelevant, as ketchup is with a great steak.
Steamed mussels ($11) are treated with care, still soft and fat in their shells, bobbing in a broth of cream and roughly chopped parsley. The octopus ($14) is a bit more adventurous—served with silky feta and spiced oil flecked with slivers of preserved lemon peel, whole seeds of cumin, but too-big peppercorns that can ruin a bite. For dessert, try the mille-feuille ($9), a sweet, double-decker sandwich of crisp pastry, cold vanilla pastry cream, and strawberry jam, which has been recklessly dusted with powdered sugar, right up to the edge of the plate.
There are inconsistencies and eccentricities, too. The rillettes—meat chopped up finely with butter or rendered fat—are made with sardines and olives at Prima and served with grilled bread. On one night, my companions and I cleaned the sardine tin from which it was served like a band of stray cats. On another, the sardines were left untouched, too underseasoned to enjoy. You might expect good espresso here after dinner, but the coffee bar closes in the late afternoon, and though a kind waiter might instead offer you a shot of cold brew from the fridge, he might not.
Prima does communal seating, with tall, spindly chairs set around eight marble-topped tables. If you’re unlucky, you may be packed in with nosy neighbors who demand to know if this is your first date and how is it going and FYI their son is a doctor. But if the universe is on your side, you’ll be among New York’s most down-to-earth seafood lovers, happily eating and drinking your way into the night.