Not so long ago, assorted gasbag food pundits and jaded old-media restaurant critics were confidently announcing the death of the grand old gourmet seafood restaurant in Manhattan. Well, we were wrong. Just ask that great Italian cooking savant Michael White, whose pricey, unabashedly glittering seafood palace Marea is packed every evening with hordes of well-heeled seafood fanatics clamoring for tastes of cool Nova Scotia lobster paired with pickled eggplant and burrata cheese, lustrous tangles of spaghetti folded with sea-urchin roe and nuggets of blue crab, and delicate slices of wild Dover sole. This upscale fish house lacks the earthy geniality of White’s excellent Tudor City pasta destination, Convivio, or the focused gourmet edge of his great Northern Italian restaurant, Alto. But if you go at lunchtime, the pace is less hectic; the polished room has a bright, jewel-box quality; and it’s possible to enjoy a $34 prix fixe sampling of White’s impressive, ever-expanding seafood repertoire without breaking the bank.
Elsewhere uptown, the mad genius David Burke is packing crowds of loyal customers into his antic new seafood restaurant, Fishtail, where the specialties include seafood tacos stuffed with crab salad, tuna tartare and salmon tartare, and a characteristically baroque version of crab cakes, which here are pretzel-crusted. Meanwhile, in midtown, the elegant, Michelin-decorated seafood mecca Oceana has morphed from a quaint townhouse restaurant to a giant, Wal-Mart-size establishment replete with lobster tanks as big as refrigerators, banquettes lined with fluffy pillows, and rows of white-linen lampshades the size of garbage cans. The trimmed-down menu contains oysters from Skookum Bay, and giant expense-account lobsters trucked in from Maine, but the dish to get is chef Ben Pollinger’s signature pompano, which is wrapped, retro-gourmet style, with a crunchy layer of thinly sliced taro root and enhanced with a bracing, coriander-scented curry poured, with proper ceremony, from a shiny silver pot.
Seafood chowder in various comforting, heart-clogging forms is the theme of Jeffrey Chodorow’s new Upper West Side restaurant, Ed’s Chowder House, and the one we couldn’t stop eating was Ed Brown’s version of Manhattan clam chowder, which the veteran seafood chef supplements with heretical choppings of chorizo. But if you long for the simpler pleasures of seafood dining, head to Brooklyn to Sel de Mer, in the old Italian section of Williamsburg. The restaurant’s clapboard walls are decorated with oil paintings of graybeard sea captains puffing on old weathered pipes, and in the evenings, the communal tables are filled with young tattooed seafood aesthetes from the neighborhood, feasting on fresh-charred sardines with bowls of freshly whipped wasabi mayonnaise, and impressive mounds of golden, brick-size fish and chips fried in an impressively crisp beer batter. But what caught my eye when I wandered in off the street the other evening were the icy, silver-dollar-size Long Island Bluepoints, selling for the outer-borough price of a dollar apiece.