I don't want to sound ungrateful -- for years, the area was so bleak and dank that I avoided Times Square the way Jodie Foster avoids love scenes. Now it's brimming with energy and bustle, lit brighter than a Wal-Mart. But it's not the way I would have brought it back -- it's all about kids. Anyone sporting a suit and manicure is supposed to go . . . where? "The gang on 42nd Street" that George M. Cohan yearned to mingle with isn't at the Virgin Megastore. Congrats if the WWF restaurant has rekindled your second childhood, or if Toys 'R' Us delights your second child, but what lure -- other than Kathleen Turner's bruin-esque physique -- is there here for grown-ups? Why hasn't Times Square given us an adult version of an indoor Ferris wheel?
Well, now it has. Blue Fin's oh-so-grand staircase, set against an undulating wall of white waves, is not only a fitting centerpiece for a restaurant bold enough to open in this part of town without a theme, it is also a voyeur's paradise. Negotiating or watching others navigate this two-story descent is riveting theater. What's more, at either end of the staircase is proof that at least one man thinks Broadway can be classier than a carnival. It's obvious from his success with both Ruby Foo's and several packed restaurants with names ending in the word Grill that Stephen Hanson is a crowd-pleasing showman. Here he's assembled something better and greater: a 400-seat restaurant, unstinting in sophistication and skill, that retains the core elements of his past pleasers.
And it's not all been done for show, either. While the walls upstairs are as luxuriously burnished as a Bentley's dashboard, and downstairs' myriad mirrors play with backlighting like a wall of fountains, it's Blue Fin's two kitchens that will have you fighting your way back across Duffy Square. Dine on just the menu's sushi offerings, and chef Masa's artistry will match most any of the city's touted sushi temples. Tempura gracefully wraps a silky oyster roll, deftly scented with soy and ginger. Just a smack of vinegar and chili ignites a spicy tuna roll. The crunch of a shrimp roll unlocks a delicious blast of green curry. And whether your plate bears smoky shards of barbecued eel, sweet slices of fluke, or pools of uni, each bespeaks the confidence of someone who knows no additional embellishment is needed.
But as memorable as these morsels are, you'd be a fool to forsake the other side of Blue Fin's menu. Several years ago, chef Paul Sale's talent was cruelly squandered in a dim W hotel eatery called Icon. Hanson has shown him the light, and Sale rewards his customers with sautéed black bass in a wondrous pool of chive nage with a lush shrimp-and-asparagus risotto. Nifty pumpernickel croutons bob in a meaty, almost refreshing clam-and-lobster chowder. Beet-and-goat-cheese salad sports the surprise of macadamia nuts. Lustrous crescents of poached halibut splash in a lively ancho-chili-and-vegetable broth. Crab cakes should have the presence of the Caesar salad, and Sale has yet to make skate wing fly. But Chilean sea bass has a bouillabaisse worth bottling, and thyme-seared salmon surrounded by lentils, trumpet mushrooms, parsnip purée, and pesto drizzle is a celebration of riches without excess. Even the porterhouse is terrific, and fairly priced, too.
Is it wrong to rave about pastry chef Joseph Murphy's unabashedly dense ice cream? (Not if one is willing to also laud his sour-cherry almond cake, his understated McIntosh-apple-cider cake, a panna cotta destined to be gobbled too quickly, and an astonishing crème brûlée.) And would one's meal be as enjoyable if the restaurant lacked a staff whose unflagging charm turns what could be a madhouse into a many-splendored thing? But the big question is this one: Would I be as tickled by Blue Fin if there weren't the parade on the steps? The answer is yes. It's all just too smart. But with the staircase? Well, give my regards to Broadway and tell Blue Fin I'll be back ere long.
Blue Fin 1567 Broadway, at 47th Street (212-918-1400); lunch, Monday to Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; dinner, Sunday to Tuesday, 5:30 p.m. to midnight. Wednesday and Thursday till 12:30 a.m., Friday and Saturday till 1 a.m. Appetizers, $7 to $15; entrées, $19 to $38. A.E., M.C., V.