Small fish — I’m talking smelt, sprat, sardines, and the like — make for some of the simplest and most rewarding nose-to-tail eating. Among them, anchovies too often get a bad rap. Tinned or jarred, they’re viewed as too fishy, too salty, and just too damn pungent. Enter Renae Holland of Bon Chovie, who since 2011 has made it her literal business to change that perception, by offering them fresh and fried whole at her loosely rock ‘n’ roll-themed Smorgasburg stall.
Dunked into egg wash and caked in seasoned breadcrumbs, the tiny, oily fish — which Holland sources from Turkey by way of the Bronx and affectionately calls “‘chovies” — crisp up into one of the city’s finest and briniest snacks. And now she’s taken them to Bay Ridge, where she’s opened up a brick-and-mortar location.
Holland’s no stranger to the neighborhood. She landed there a decade ago when she moved to New York to pursue a career in the music business and rented a room “sight unseen” from Craigslist, she tells the Voice. Scouring Kings County for kitchen space last year, she wound up at a sandwich shop on Third Avenue. Initially only using the kitchen for Smorgasburg prep, she took over the operation last October. The transition from stall to storefront hasn’t been without its growing pains for Holland, a Seattle native with no formal kitchen training. “I went in with a healthy dose of positive thinking and naïveté,” she says, adding that she’s “been hit with the hard truth that running a restaurant is a totally different animal than popping up a tent every weekend.”
But Bon Chovie the restaurant is a satisfying and even-keeled encore to the hustle and bustle of a street-food market. The white-tiled, modern shanty, designed by Holland, has a Restoration Hardware-meets-salvage-yard vibe; its nautical decorations include a 1930s FDNY life preserver gifted Holland by a customer. A curve in the lifeboat-sized dining room is accented by a hand-drawn octopus.
In this new setting, Bon Chovie’s anchovies remain pristine: crunchy and slightly bitter from keeping the head on and innards intact. They’re great dipped into a smoked-paprika mayonnaise, though I do miss the pickled vegetables that used to come with orders at the stall. If it’s acid you want, you’ll have to hit the fish with a squeeze from lemon wedges instead. And they’re joined by a slew of unfussy plates and seasonal specials on Holland’s expanded sit-down menu.
That means seashore favorites like flawless cornmeal-crusted calamari fried and piled into a cardboard boat and velvety New England clam chowder fortified with bacon, brandy, and fresh parsley. (Fortunately missing from the latter: any kind of attempt at “artisanal” oyster crackers.)
Look past the one-note shrimp ceviche, but don’t skip the $12 “crabby mac,” which seasons its gruyère-coated pasta shells and sweet crab meat with nutmeg. Lobster lovers should seek out Holland’s massive roll: an overstuffed buttered and toasted bun supporting a heap of knuckle and claw meat dressed with lemony mayonnaise. At $19, it’s a bargain and a contender for NYC lobster roll supremacy.
Other sandwiches ($12-$15) feature barbecue-dry-rubbed salmon and tuna steaks grilled rare and served with pineapple and wasabi mayo. Carnivores will find comfort in Holland’s burger, a cookout-style patty that gets layered with cheddar or a handful of lobster salad. It’s tasty, for a pricey ($23) surf-and-turf stunt, but I’ll take my burger and lobster roll separately.
Meanwhile, cod gets beer-battered for a basket of golden-brown fish ‘n’ chips; cornmeal-coated shrimp gets a similar presentation. Save for grilled mahi-mahi tacos, which come with tricolor tortilla chips, the sandwiches and seafood platters are accompanied by crisp Old Bay-seasoned french fries.
At the bar, you’ll find a Brass Monkey, that mixture of Olde English malt liquor and orange juice immortalized in the Beastie Boys song, alongside craft beers, cocktails, and a shandy that winningly blends unfiltered cider and rosé. End your meal with pie (key lime gets our nod) from Brooklyn’s Baking Bean, or enjoy a boozy ice cream float that plunks a scoop of vanilla into a Ball jar of spiced microbrew. If that, or the lobster-topped burger, is any indication, this is a seafood shack that isn’t afraid to let loose.
7604 Third Avenue
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 19, 2016