It's rare to see a tableful of boisterous eaters shocked into introspective silence by a single bite of food. But that's what more or less happened the other night at a new seafood restaurant in Tribeca called Fresh. The object of everyone's attention was a square of seared tuna belly as big as a tea biscuit and about as thick as your thumb. It was described on the menu as "blue fin 'Kobe' toro," which conjured up images of fat tuna swimming lazily to and fro in great vats of Japanese beer. Like the famous beef, this toro wasn't so much larded with richness as it was infused with it. The meat was seared crisp around the edges, with just a hint of rosiness at its center. It had an almost creamy foie gras texture, and as little forkfuls were passed around in the dainty foodie manner, people kept asking, "Where did they get this?"
With seafood of the highest order, that's the eternal question. Technique is a wonderful thing, as all fish fiends know, but absolute freshness is the key. One of the co-owners of Fresh is Eric Tevrow Sinclaire, whose company Early Morning Seafood purveys seafood to upscale Manhattan chefs like Alain Ducasse. As it happens, the Kobe tuna was harpooned off Nova Scotia and cut from a shipment bound for sushi chefs in Tokyo. On the menu at Fresh, depending on the day's catch, you may also find giant lobsters whisked south from Nova Scotia, clams beamed direct from Ipswich, and steamers harvested the previous day from the Damariscotta River in Maine. There are also great hunks of swordfish cut into sixteen-ounce bone-in "prime rib" sections, halibut "baby back" ribs, and cods' tongues served fried with salad and a medley of fresh figs.
Chef and co-owner Martin Burge (formerly of the Gotham Bar and Grill) seems equally adept with both the high and the low ends of the seafood spectrum. Some of his most elaborate dishes are appetizers, like a rich but deliciously light crab gazpacho (made with crab stock, Maryland blue crab, cilantro, and chunks of avocado) and a finely seared lobe of foie gras perched over a wobbly mound of tender halibut cheeks. The seviche I sampled was loaded with silvery pieces of rouget and snapper, and my friend the codfish hound heaped praise on the house rillettes, which Burge makes with mashed cod, potatoes, and finnan haddie (smoked haddock) and serves in a decorous little tower.
Several of the more down-home items on the menu exhibit a similarly elegant touch. My delicate little daughter devoured an entire batch of chewy, salty fried Ipswich clams, although for $15, I would have expected a few buckets more. Cod tongues are a little bland and chewy, in case you didn't know, but Burge's fish-and-chips-style haddock is dipped in a light, beer-laced batter that evaporates, like malt candy, on the tongue. The halibut "baby back" ribs are steamed into a kind of inert blandness, but the prime rib of swordfish is a satisfying combination of fresh gourmet flavor and heft. Among other big-ticket items, I liked the Kobe toro best (presented, like the Japanese beef, over lightly garlicked rice, with grated daikon), although the $34 bouillabaisse lacked the concentrated punch of the cup of Spanish romesco soup, which you can order as an appetizer for $9.
All this elaborate grub is served in a space that looks almost nondescript by New York standards. The walls are partially curved to resemble the hull of a ship, but they're painted in pallid aquarium colors. The translucent plastic chairs have a makeshift quality, and the round tables I sat at tottered back and forth on their legs, as if they'd just been set up by a caterer for some last-minute party. A few of the desserts have a makeshift quality, too. There's a chocolate-and-vanilla crème brûlée that tastes like gooey summer custard, and a bland roasted-peach concoction built on a dry square of French toast. If you want to choose just one dish, try the warm blueberry financiere, topped with a scoop of basil ice cream. But beware. Fresh is a seafood restaurant in the purest sense, and nobody ever went to sea for dessert.