Judging by the line snaking outside Citarella's Third Avenue outpost last Wednesday, you would've thought it was screening Harry Potter at the deli counter. There's wizardry of a different sort inside. Although many epicurean food shops have aggressively added locations while slyly subtracting quality, the integrity and accommodation that marked Citarella's beginnings -- when Joseph Gurrera opened his first day-boat-fresh seafood store -- have been reaffirmed with each expansion.
So naturally, when Citarella announced plans for its first seafood restaurant in Rockefeller Center back in the fall of 2000, its followers got as revved up as Isaac Mizrahi would be if he were handed his weight in taffeta. However, Mizrahi could have hand-stitched an entire mummers' parade while we've dog-paddled in anticipation. Even after service began, Brian Young's menu carried a "lay off, we're not quite ready" preview discount for so long that Citarella started to remind me of those "pre-Broadway" comedies that never dare come east of the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia.
Finally, dishes are at full price. Citarella is ready to let you go fish. There are beauties to be caught, starting with sliced geoduck clam vibrantly splashing around in hot-pepper oil. Airily breadcrumb-dusted and sautéed oysters engage an enthralling trio of sea urchin, fennel, and briny caviar rémoulade. A suspiciously simple pairing of sweet chopped beets and goat cheese acquires an air of mystery in a cloak of truffle oil. Propelled by ambition and talent, Young (an alum of Le Bernardin and Pop) is making the most of his access to Gurrera's superior resources.
But such wide-netted experimentation doesn't always yield a great catch of the day. While wild hamachi with scallion, radish, and ginger dashes madly across your senses, Spanish mackerel laden with a blend of soy and truffle oil capsizes taste buds. Young has tried at least two different lobster appetizers and one entrée, and neither could match the crunch of his irresistible, now out-of-season soft-shell-crab tempura. The current crab soup is the best liquid potion offered yet, and there is an imposing sushi menu at lunch.
Such range is impressive, yet also slightly lacking in focus. Outside the kitchen other details have yet to converge in harmony. The staffers are informed and self-effacing, but they don't work as a team. The décor suffers from a similar dissonance. The landmark status of Citarella's four-story residence is an immutable obstacle, but unfortunately, several solutions, like the entrance, are unexpectedly graceless. Once winter comes, prepare to chatter like an orphan in a storm when that elevator from the dining area opens directly opposite the front door. Upstairs, designer David Rockwell has delivered comfortable seating, pleasing acoustics, and porthole-shaped dioramas of seashells and starfish that ring the room like blown bubbles. Yet the space is neither invigorating nor warm. The blond wood walls appear inspired by a conference room in the U.N.; and though the glinting oyster-white walls are meant to evoke the interior of a yacht, they reminded me of the inside of a motor home.
But an RV kitchen could never produce Young's delicate pink snapper with cauliflower purée, the confident simplicity of his grilled branzino in ginger with bok choy, or derive such sweetness out of grilled pompano in a horseradish-spiked soy relish. His audacity sometimes falls flat. Maybe it's the bacon, but tuna tastes more sans than au poivre. Take my advice, keep on walking past that Chilean bass in oxtail sauce. His halibut baked in ginger and chive over a lentil stew, however, is hearty and cold-weather-ready, and his sautéed skate is appealing in a sage lemon broth.
Young has found a kindred spirit in William Yosses, his pastry chef. While the proposition of risk-taking desserts is always a scary one, the nervy Yosses's Pavlova meringue with fruit sorbets and his lemon-raspberry soufflé in verbena sauce are far more agreeable than esoteric. In fact, his warm vanilla cake, fig napoleon, and warm chocolate-chestnut brioche pudding are simply yummy. Alas, even his valiant attempts to transform Japanese desserts into something palatable cannot eradicate their core of gummy inaccessibility.
It's no surprise that Citarella is trying to reach for the stars. For a restaurant to succeed, however, consistency must come first. Citarella can do its name proud. It just has to get its feet firmly on the ground.
Citarella, 1240 Sixth Avenue, at 49th Street (212-332-1515). Lunch, Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner, Mon.-Sat. 5:30-11 p.m., Sunday 5-10 p.m. Sushi bar Mon.-Sat. noon-1 a.m. Appetizers, $9 to $23; entrées, $26 to $37. All major credit cards.