If chef Nick Perkins isn’t secretly Aquaman, then he’s surely some kind of seafood whisperer. He already proved as much at Hart’s, the petite Mediterranean wine bar he opened in Bedford-Stuyvesant last fall, where the 34-year-old turned pancetta-clam toast into a destination dish worthy of repeat orders. Like its forebear, Perkins’s new spot, Cervo’s, speaks to a simplified Iberian cooking, more seaside town tavern than modernist tasting temple.
The chef’s partner at Cervo’s is Nialls Fallon, another mollusk-minded man and co-founder of Maiden Lane, Manhattan’s haven for Spanish, Portuguese, and French canned fish. Here Perkins, a veteran of Andrew Tarlow’s venerable Brooklyn restaurant stable (Diner, Reynard, etc.), taps further into his raw-bar bravado and knack for understated marine cookery. The restaurant debuted in May, less than a year after Hart’s. That kind of chutzpah from restaurateurs doesn’t always pan out so well, which makes the fact that Fallon and Perkins have more or less struck gold twice in such a short span of time all the more notable. Dudes are on a roll.
Unsurprisingly, Cervo’s menu is a document in flux, largely subject to the whims of the market. Fresh bivalves — sometimes clams, sometimes cockles ($16) — get a treatment similar to that at Hart’s, the tender, garlic-laden jewels served in the shell and adrift in a sauce enhanced by Portuguese vinho verde. Instead of toast, there are soft, rustic slices of sourdough for sopping up the leftover braising liquid (always sop up the leftover braising liquid). A portion costs $2 and is worth every cent. Also on the menu are staggeringly good white Gulf shrimp ($3.75 each) drenched in a sauce of tomatoes and fermented chile, so soft and supple that you can and should eat them whole — eyes, antennae, tail, and all. An ingenious beef tartare with littleneck clams ($15) is another mainstay, and Hart’s fans will be thrilled to find that this younger, slightly larger sibling also offers Perkins’s tricked-out lamb burger ($16). Heaped with fennel-celery slaw and slathered in lemon-caper aioli, it’s a fine choice as is. But I’d implore you to throw down the extra $2 for the sole optional topping: boquerones, Spain’s marinated white anchovies. The way the medium-rare grass-fed patty and its other condiments balance with the sour-saline punch of the cured fish, who needs cheese?
From the “raw and chilled” section, both escabeches (quickly pickled seafood) are revelatory. In one, height-of-the-season heirloom tomatoes pull unfathomable sweetness out of marinated squid ($14). In the other, plump, tender mussels ($12) burst like some salty version of Gushers candy. Unfussy anchodinas ($10) — Spanish sardines cured like anchovies in oil and salt and plated with slivers of raw radish — are meaty and pristine. Joining appetizers like the cockles and tartare, mackerel conserva ($14) pits the fatty fish against sharp radicchio, creating harmony out of dissonance, while squid ($26) comes stuffed with sofrito rice and seared alongside heavily browned eggplant and blistered sun gold tomatoes. Raw cabbage ($13) with yogurt dressing and bottarga shavings, meanwhile, is the only misstep, the too-crunchy leaves enlivened by the dried fish roe but begging for some of the plancha char that’s on display in a main course of chicken brochettes ($25) with sweet onions.
The restaurant brims with a bubbly energy, whether you’re posted up at the small front counter looking out onto the sleepy stretch of eastern Canal Street where Division becomes Ludlow; cocooned in the snug, skylighted back dining room; or seated at the angular, J-shaped banquette. Tiled and wood-paneled walls, and a lengthy bar perfect for oyster-slurping, evoke Portuguese and Spanish cervecerías. Spanish selections range from lightly fizzy Basque txakoli to rosé from the Canary Islands and a trio of sherries. Portugal is represented both by that vinho verde from the north and by wines Fallon carries from the central Dao and Bairrada regions, as well as a very sherry-like clay-aged orange wine from the Alentejo in the south. With plenty of bottles in the $40-$50 range, and all but three going for less than $70, the limited assortment is graciously accessible, though I do wish there were a few ports to go along with the quartet of madeiras at the ready when it comes time for dessert.
That’s especially true since the choices for dessert are slim. If you’re someone who dreams of cake-filled trolleys and always orders “one of everything,” Cervo’s may give you the chills. Perkins takes the KISS principle (keep it simple, stupid) to the extreme, with a lone treat to conclude your feast: custard ($9). But there’s no need to worry: It might show up in a creamy and dense tart decorated with a sash of jammy cooked blueberries, or coddled in ramekins scented with licorice-y anise hyssop and showered with pistachios. Both are swift reminders of just how much this kitchen can do, making so much out of so little.
43 Canal Street