Don’t Call It a Fish Shack

Photo: Christopher Anderson

In the rough-and-tumble, caste-bound world of restaurant kitchens, different jobs tend to attract different personalities. Sauciers are supposed to be secretive and mercurial, pastry chefs are persnickety, grill men are famously aggressive and verbose. And then there are the lordly seafood chefs, a delicate band of aesthetes, famous for their snooty, hypersensitive attention to ingredients and cooking technique. April Bloomfield, who made her New York reputation serving up elegant, two-fisted gastropub recipes at the popular West Village restaurant-bar the Spotted Pig, doesn’t seem to fit into the classic seafood-snob mold. Her most popular dish at the Spotted Pig is a giant Roquefort-smothered cheeseburger. As an acolyte of the great “nose-to-tail” London chef Fergus Henderson, she has a fondness for offal specialties like grilled beef tongue and crispy pig’s ear spritzed with lemon and capers. She serves chicken livers, too, and plenty of bacon, and has a happy English penchant for drowning her recipes in flagons of melted butter and country cream.

So it’s no surprise that Bloomfield’s newest venture, with the restaurateur Ken Friedman, is a seafood restaurant of a slightly different kind. “I feel like I’m having dinner in the Yellow Submarine,” someone said as we wedged ourselves into one of the snug little tables at the John Dory, which opened late last year in a narrow slip of a space on the westerly border of the meatpacking district. The skinny Technicolor room is plastered with extravagantly kitschy seafood-shack memorabilia: giant mirrors encrusted with puka shells, laminated nautical charts, shimmering trophy-size fishes. Illuminated tiles run like racing stripes across the floor and ceiling, and the open kitchen is separated from the dining room by a clear plastic bar filled with schools of entombed fishing lures. Dated rock-and-roll anthems blare over the speaker system (as with the Spotted Pig, Mario Batali is a not-so-silent backer), and a well-stocked wall-size aquarium casts the entire scene in an aquamarine glow.

These are not the best of times for restaurants, of course, and seafood joints face particular hurdles. Fish are vanishing from oceans at a rapid clip, environmentalists are up in arms over the consumption of everything from swordfish to farm-raised salmon, and diners are overdosing, some of them theatrically, on piles of mercury-laden sushi. But Bloomfield and Friedman are unfazed. They aim to do for the tired fish-house formula what they did for bar food at the Spotted Pig—that is, imbue it with fun, culinary excellence, and a sizable dose of English largesse. To this end, there’s a nice if limited selection of crudi on the appetizer menu (try the kampachi touched with ginger), along with opulent old-world specialties like a somewhat skimpy oysters Rockefeller (you get just two good-size oysters for $15), a very good steak-tartare appetizer served with toast points thickly spread with butter and crushed anchovies, and even generous helpings of cod milt (a.k.a. cod sperm), which tastes like a mild seafood version of sweetbreads, drowned in capers and brown butter.

Predictably, Bloomfield does not employ her flavors with a feathery touch. She slathers them on in smoky, buttery layers and uses salty, umami-rich garnishes (anchovies, bottarga) the way a pastry chef uses sugar. In the gentle, diaphanous world of seafood, this kind of headlong approach inevitably produces train wrecks, but the dishes that survive are memorable. The anchovy dressing in my escarole salad was so creamy you could almost cut it with a knife, and the rust-colored fish-soup appetizer seemed thick and overcondensed, as if it had been mixed from the can without enough water. But the tiny, crinkly grilled octopuses, on the other hand, are salted with cool shavings of fennel and just the right amount of that famous Mediterranean flavor enhancer, bottarga—mullet roe cured in sea salt. Then there’s Bloomfield’s version of oyster pan roast, an intensely delicious brew of oysters, lemony shallots, cream, and vermouth, which is so rich and densely flavored it’s served in a decorous little teacup-size bowl.

Among the main courses, the most conspicuous flops are the $30 skirt steak (it’s buried in smoked oysters, gobbets of bone marrow, and a glop of red-wine sauce) and a greasy concoction called black-pepper Dungeness crab, which is dripped with a tarlike pepper sauce. Bizarrely, this talented English chef doesn’t have updated versions of fish and chips on her menu, or even Dover sole, although there’s an excellent hunk of seared codfish, set in a purée of brandade and potato and dusted with crunchy artichoke chips. There are little torpedoes of squid, too, artfully stuffed with a mix of rice and chorizo, and fresh roasted John Dory, of course, which is plated for two, with a lush salsa verde made with anchovies, tarragon, and marjoram. The most satisfying dish of all, though, is the fish stew, a chunky faux bouillabaisse filled with mussels, bay scallops, and strips of black bass, which becomes progressively tastier and more complex as you excavate your way to the bottom of the bowl.

Is the John Dory a new-millennium, category-busting kind of seafood restaurant? Not really. The menu, at this early date, is limited and slightly uneven, and the room is overamped by an octave or two. But like the Spotted Pig, there’s a vibrant sense of fun in the air, an infectious feeling that you should be having a good time even if, quite possibly, you’re not. The wine list, as put together by David Lynch and longtime Batali partner Joe Bastianich, is an elegantly modest compendium, with an emphasis on reasonably priced, fish-friendly selections. The slim, incurably British roster of desserts includes smallish minced Eccles cakes with Stichelton cheese, a soothing though insubstantial serving of cider jelly and cream, and, on one of the evenings I visited, a decent U.K. approximation of a chocolate sundae made with malt ice cream and chunks of honeycomb. But to experience the true bountiful pleasures of English cooking, order the supersize treacle pudding for two, a giant steamed confection made with Lyle’s Golden Syrup, poured with custard sauce, and prepared to order, like a French soufflé.

The John Dory
Address: 85 Tenth Ave., nr. 15th St.; 212-929-4948
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $12 to $20; entrées, $24 to $50.
Ideal Meal: Kampachi crudo with ginger, oyster pan roast, fish stew, or John Dory for two, treacle pudding.
Note: Thrill-seekers should try “Jensen’s Temptation,” a Swedish potato-and-onion side dish, made with lethal amounts of butter and cream.
Scratchpad: The menu’s still evolving, and the room’s a little strange. But Bloomfield’s best dishes are worth two stars alone.

Don’t Call It a Fish Shack