I didn't have the gumption to plunk down $261 for the shellfish tasting menu at Alain Ducasse (since replaced on the seasonal rotation by a six-course, $250 meal built around black truffles), but in between the operatic attentions of fifteen or so waiters, I did sneak a taste of my wife's mildly treacly mushroom-infused lobster velouté, plus a wafer-thin chip of seared halibut that, by our reckoning, cost exactly $20 per bite. Your money still travels a lot further at Le Bernardin, where Eric Ripert's new version of the baked potato contains a savory gourmet mash of dill-scented smoked salmon, potato crème fraîche, and Osetra caviar, flanked by two delicately toasted ladyfingers filled with more smoked salmon, caviar, and slips of Gruyère cheese. Sitting among all the fat cats and moguls, I tried not to make piggy noises slurping down four tastings of fluke seviche beginning with a simple sauce of virgin olive oil and lime juice, ending with a combination of wasabi, orange zest, and coconut milk. That was followed by two ravioli filled with mushrooms and whole Argentinian shrimp, covered in a pleasing foie gras-and- truffle sauce, and two ghostly white squares of halibut, perfectly steamed, with slivers of salsify and more black-truffle sauce ladled on top.
Similar high-pitched seafood delights were on display at Cello the evening I visited, although I'm afraid I forgot my dinner jacket and had to negotiate my teacup of lobster risotto (with little squares of foie gras folded inside) wearing a house jacket that was so small that the cuffs stopped at my elbows. Not that this seemed to faze my very proper Upper East Side guest, who leaned over her equally refined portion of potato-crusted halibut and whispered, "I don't think they're eating this in the caves of Tora Bora."
That's probably true, too, of the exemplary fish delicacies at Esca (I like the salt-baked bronzini, the nightly crudos, the linguini with mahogany clams), and the delectably salty codfish cake, with sautéed cod in a rock-shrimp chowder, at the new Citarella restaurant in Rockefeller Center. Several of Citarella's more elaborate dishes Chilean sea bass and parsley risotto with clunky helpings of beef short ribs, for instance weren't nearly as satisfying, in retrospect, as a container of the good old smoked-seafood salad, served with a paper napkin and a plastic fork, at the original mother ship uptown.