A chef I know who has worked in various kitchens around town likes to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald when he talks about one of the strange psychological divides in his profession. "Seafood chefs," he says, "are different from you and me." This chef is a meat man, of course, an aggressive, boisterous character used to spending long hours muscling chickens and slabs of beef over a hot open flame. "Meat is hard physical labor," he says. "The fire is hot, you get sweaty, you're doing variations of the same thing over and over again; it takes a certain brutish kind of personality to work the grill." Then there are the seafood chefs. "There's a little more imagination on the fish side," says the meat guy. "Seafood types tend to be finicky, sensitive people; they're more precise and intellectual. It's like cats versus dogs, and they're the cats."
I thought of this distinction the other day while dining at RM, the tidy, inventive, very catlike establishment opened recently by the seafood chef Rick Moonen. Moonen, as all the local food world knows, was for several years the executive chef and a partner at the distinguished midtown seafood restaurant Oceana. Oceana is an elegantly compact restaurant with a beamy, nautical feel, and so, to a slightly less flashy degree, is RM. The grottolike space comprises three adjoining rooms, parts of which have been patterned with glittery terrazzo tiles. The rafters in one of the rooms are ribbed as on a boat, there are giant luminous seashells scattered here and there for decoration, and in the back dining room there's even a peaked, yacht-style skylight, through which diners can monitor the city's changeable seaport weather.
Not that you'll spend a lot of time gazing out the windows at RM. As befits a seafood impresario of Moonen's stature, most of the action here unfolds on the plate. My first appetizer was a delicious velouté, infused with roasted garlic and folded with bits of cod and salty pancetta. The soup had the light, creamy texture of melted ice cream and left a pleasing slick of richness down the back of my throat. After that came a cool orange strip of Arctic char cured in preserved lemon and flavored with a drop of dill oil. Then there was hamachi lightly braised in ginger tea, and yellowtail tataki crusted in pepper and laid in ribbons over slices of peach and soft avocado. These dishes were small and neatly packaged, and before long, I found myself pecking at my food in an appraising, sensitive way, and nibbling in tiny little bites.
The main dishes on Moonen's monogrammed (and personally autographed) menu did nothing to dispel this general sense of feline largesse. The lobster was stacked in a little cupola (with crunchy bits of green apple at its base) and poached in butter to a delicious tenderness. The halibut "confit" was similarly delicate and fresh, and my potentially dreary skate was rolled in a light dusting of pistachio and tasted the way good skate should, which is to say almost like scallops. Two other potentially dreary fish -- walleye and wild striped sea bass -- were bundled in thin origami wrappers of potato and pancetta, respectively. The walleye reclined in a little bath of truffle sauce with pickled chanterelles, and the sea bass was tightly wound, like a tube of cotton, and flaked open in a pleasing way (into a littleneck-clam vinaigrette) when you tweaked it with your fork.
The prices at RM are almost modest compared with those at some of the fancier fish houses in town ($55 for three courses, including dessert), and the chef even throws in a decent piece of steak -- the onglet cut, in a braised-short-rib jus -- for the occasional ravenous beefeater. The desserts tended to be as busy as the savory courses; the ones I sampled were almost uniformly acceptable, and one or two were better than that. One of these was a nectarine Tatin with a scoop of bittersweet white-miso ice cream. The other was a box of slim milk-chocolate wafers filled with whipped bananas, crisped rice, and a chewy base of bourbon-flavored pecans. It's a seafood guy's prim, tricky version of a banana split, and it tasted pretty great, even to a meat guy like me.