I have alluded before, in this space, to the uncanny similarities between great restaurateurs and great philosophers. Like deep thinkers down through the ages, the men and women who run successful restaurants tend to fall into one of the two broad categories described by Sir Isaiah Berlin in his famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” There are those who come up with one grand idea and mine it doggedly throughout their careers (Plato, Ray Kroc, André Soltner), and there are the more restless, obsessive souls (Voltaire, Drew Nieporent, the McNally brothers) who dart, foxlike, from one idea to another in search of the next big thing. And then, somewhere in between these two poles, is a curious hybrid group, part hedgehog and part fox. These chefs and food entrepreneurs hit on one big idea and then manage, through a combination of ingenuity, talent, and a little luck, to spin it out in restaurant after restaurant, in new and artful ways.
Danny Abrams and Jimmy Bradley, co-owners of the Red Cat, in Chelsea, and the Harrison, in Tribeca, are in the middle of such a run. They have perfected their own brand of what my friend the food aristocrat calls “adult American bistro food.” It’s a kind of refined comfort cuisine, more seasonal and inventive than the best neighborhood restaurant fare but cheaper and more accessible than what you find at the great bastions of high cuisine. Always, this food is served in rooms carefully scripted to promote a sense of chic, neighborly belonging. So it’s no surprise that the latest Bradley-Abrams venture, called The Mermaid Inn, has a long, crowded bar up front and freshly painted, beamy white ceilings. The walls are decorated with charts, boat photos, and other tastefully chosen objets of the sea. The menu is modestly priced and printed on a single page, and if you didn’t actually live down in the East Village, where the Mermaid Inn recently opened, you’d swear it had been there for years.
You could say the same thing about the Red Cat and the Harrison, of course, but the difference, this time around, is the cuisine. After dabbling in dishes like fried clam strips (Harrison) and mustard crusted trout (Red Cat), chef Bradley and his partner have set out to conquer the refined, fickle, endlessly comforting world of seafood. From beginning to end, their approach is characteristically minimalist and unfussy. Instead of the usual confused cavalcade of raw-bar items, a limited selection of oysters is offered daily (some from the West Coast and some from the East), plus fresh littleneck clams trucked in from Ipswich. I enjoyed mild, fat-bellied oysters from Martha’s Vineyard on one of my visits, and briny Yakima Bay oysters from Oregon in long, sluicelike shells. There’s a classic shrimp cocktail available in a martini glass (with fresh-made cocktail sauce), and if it’s fried oysters you want, they come six to a plate, set in a pool of tomato-flavored butter that melts pleasingly into a portion of tangy Savoy-cabbage coleslaw.
Pleasing is a good word for the appetizers, too, most of which have been chosen (like fried oysters) from the great canon of established seafood classics. I’ve tasted more opulent forms of New England fish chowder, but the Mermaid Inn version (as executed by executive chef Michael Price) smells pleasantly of thyme and smoked bacon and costs only $6 per bowl. It was soon crowded out at our table by a bowl of decent though mildly doughy clam fritters and a thick, thrombotic cream dip loaded with nuggets of fresh blue crab. After that came a wheel of arctic char served in tartare form (with great crispy flaps of celery root for toast points) and two banana-size Portuguese sardines, crisp-fried and balanced crosswise over a delicious Mediterranean salad (feta cheese, black olives, cucumbers, tomato). Best of all, though, was the baked seafood imperial, an old-world delicacy containing bits of scallop, squid, shrimp, crab, and cod whipped together in a creamy, faintly cheesy mash, sprinkled with bread crumbs, and baked in a giant scallop shell.
Scallops keep popping up in the really good dishes at the Mermaid Inn, and usually they are as big as golf balls and sweet as plums. You’ll find them neatly seared, with peppery, burnt tops (set around a pile of braised Napa cabbage spiked with a buttery horseradish sauce), or folded into a perfectly al dente version of spicy spaghetti fra diavolo (with helpings of shrimp and a crown of arugula salad on top). I also spotted them in my bowl of zarzuela, the famous Catalan stew, along with half a lobster tail, chunks of cod and fresh squid, and two croutons spread with romesco sauce, made with tomatoes and crushed almonds. The whole grilled dorade was scallop-free, which didn’t detract from its quality. It’s presented on a bed of wilted red cabbage laced with red-wine vinegar, and looked (and tasted) as if it had just leapt there from out of the sea. My grilled salmon (served on a pile of asparagus and leeks tinged with mustard) had a similar squeaky-fresh quality, and so did the cod fillet, which was crisp-seared on its exterior and snowy white inside.
As at any decent seafood shack, there are side dishes available at the Mermaid Inn, like Old Bay fries (a variation of the famous chili fries at the Harrison), and a creation called “lobster mashed potatoes,” which somehow tastes less luxurious than it sounds. The modest wine list is refined, accessible, and reasonably priced (the house adds only a $15 markup, compared with the usual 50 percent), especially among the whites. Desserts are another issue. There are no desserts served at the Mermaid Inn, at least not in the classic sense. At the end of two of my meals, I was presented with a small cup of chocolate pudding and whipped cream. On another visit, the chocolate pudding was accompanied by butterscotch pudding, topped with chocolate sauce. Our cheery waitress assured us that these tasty though meager items were being served “on the house,” but the intent was clear. The restaurant doesn’t take reservations (lines already snake out the door and down the block), so the proprietors want to turn over their tables as quickly as possible. They’re gambling that the lack of an ice-cream sundae or a slice of warm apple pie won’t hurt their business and may actually increase it. As an eager dessert eater, I don’t like the concept, but if seasoned food philosophers like Messrs. Abrams and Bradley thought it up, chances are it will work.