‘C lam-shack cuisine” is a not a term to be bandied about lightly in certain foodie circles. As every local shackspert knows, there’s Pearl Oyster Bar, there’s Mary’s Fish Camp (and its Park Slope spinoff), and then there’s everyone else. The urban shackspert is as skeptical of the arriviste clam shack as any Down Easter, and just as hard to impress. Lately, though, the Underground Gourmet, no stranger to the pleasures of the top-loading Pepperidge Farm hot-dog bun, has observed the emergence of a new seafood subgenre, what you might call Urban Surfer Dude Cuisine, distinguished as much by its casual coastal food as by its defining practice of airing hypnotic loops of surfing videos either above the bar (as at Ditch Plains in the south Village) or over the kitchen (at the Lower East Side’s Bondi Road). Named for world-famous surfing locales in Montauk and Australia, respectively, these two new spots dispense with Kennebunkport quaintness for a more Spicoli-esque approach to eating fish (less oyster roll, more oyster shooter).
When Ditch Plains chef-owner Marc Murphy entered the lobster-roll business some months back, the scoldy schoolmarm critiques were quick and none too kind. But now that the place has had time to settle into a nearly round-the-clock groove, it’s become obvious that Ditch Plains is no Mary’s-come-lately. Instead, it’s very much its own entity: a sleekly designed, unexpectedly comfortable hangout with consistently good food, genial service, and, surprisingly enough, a terrific wine list.
Now, the Underground Gourmet has spent some time at the actual Ditch Plains beach, and among its many native charms, wine isn’t one of them. But Murphy, the man who instigated the no-glasses, bottles-only rule at his Tribeca restaurant Landmarc, has brought the innovation here. Every wine sold by the bottle is also available by the half, at prices much closer to retail than to the typically larcenous restaurant markup. What that means is that over the course of a leisurely brunch, a plate of oysters, or even while gulping down the off-the-menu pair of hot dogs topped with macaroni and cheese, diners can sample a thoughtful array of half-bottles priced at little more than what a glass of same would run them at any number of neighboring establishments. True, the wine is poured into tumblers rather than proper stemware, but even that budget-restaurant affectation doesn’t diminish the pleasure of a freshly opened bottle of J.J. Vincent Pouilly-Fuissé ($14/$28), or an indulgent Besserat de Bellefon Brut Rosé ($22/$44), served in actual flutes.
We can’t think of many other places where one can drink so well and so cheaply in such a low-key setting, which in itself elevates our estimation of Ditch Plains. So does the staff’s shocking readiness to seat a twosome in a booth without the requisite haggling. And so, too, does the menu, which, it turns out, is less fish shack than American diner, with enough gourmet tweaks to inspire frequent return visits. The salads, in particular, incorporate seafood in refreshingly inventive ways: Crispy rings of fried squid are tossed with shredded romaine and radicchio, sprinkled with sesame seeds, and flavored with chile oil, while briny anchovies are interspersed with julienned cucumbers and garnished with capers and lemon confit. Bacon-amped clam chowder is just the thing on a blustery autumn day, and so is a bowl of buttery grits, plain or garnished with optional morsels of ham, shrimp, or lobster. A first-rate bar burger hits the spot (the fries won’t win any awards, though), and a bubbling crock of macaroni and cheese emits the intoxicating aroma of good Gruyère, sometimes from across the room. Ditch Plains isn’t quite Alice’s Restaurant, but almost: You can get nearly everything you want, be it a midnight egg sandwich, a deftly grilled hunk of striped bass, or a round of oyster shooters for your buddies at the bar. You can even get a more-than-respectable lobster roll. At Ditch Plains, though, it’s only one of several fine options—not a raison d’être.
With photomontages of Bondi Beach scenes running down both sides of its high-ceilinged premises, Bondi Road ekes much more mileage out of the surfer-dude theme. It’s fish and chips, Aussie style: breezy, sun-kissed, and booze-addled. The cramped restaurant with its high tables and stool-height seating gets loud and raucous on weekends, when affable Australian waitresses charge the narrow aisles like linebackers to distribute glasses containing cloth-napkin-rolled place settings and a paper menu you’re meant to fill out with a stubby pencil, like the SATs. The concept is simple and appealing. Pick a fish (Pacific varieties like Tasmanian sea bass, New Zealand “groper,” and the crowd-pleasing barramundi), pick a cooking method (grilled, breaded, or fried), and pick a side, $15 total. Of all the combinations we tried, beer-battered barramundi with skinny chips or fat “potato scallops” fared best. That might have been because of its affinity for the roster of Australian and New Zealand beers, from the familiar and delicious Coopers Sparkling Ale to more-obscure imports like James Boag’s Premium Lager and Bluetongue pilsner.
As at Ditch Plains—and presumably all forthcoming urban-surfer-dude shacks—oyster shots are a favorite diversion, as is drinking in general. Behind the bar, the sort of recirculating plastic tanks typically used for grape and orange drinks at old-fashioned pizza parlors are filled with high-octane, neon-hued concoctions, while other cocktails are muddled with fresh fruit. If those libations don’t move you, you can opt for a nice sparkling Shiraz or McLaren Vale Riesling. But it’s not really that kind of place. It’s friendly, high-spirited, a bit crazed, and utterly unpretentious. That goes for the food, too—especially the “hot pot” of salt-and-pepper squid with a fiendishly good dipping sauce made with cream, soy, scallions, and a mystery ingredient that tastes a little like Heinz 57. The burger comes decked out in proper Australian fashion with beets and pineapple, and dessert means a classic Lamington or a pavlova, the tropical-fruit-strewn meringue puck that just might be the urban surfer dude’s answer to blueberry pie.
Address: 29 Bedford St., at Downing St.; 212-633-0202
Hours: Daily, 7 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Prices: $2 to $24.
Ideal Meal: White-anchovy salad, cheeseburger or lobster roll, Besserat de Bellefon Brut Rosé.
Note: Breakfast is served all day, and, in an unusual twist, so are lunch and dinner.
Scratchpad: Three stars for combining the drop-in-anytime appeal of a diner with unexpectedly good food and an even better, affordable wine list.
Address: 153 Rivington St., nr. Suffolk St.; 212-253-5311
Hours: Dinner daily, from 6 p.m. to midnight. Brunch noon to 4 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $7 to $12; entrées, $9 to $25.
Ideal Meal: Salt-and-pepper squid, fried barramundi and chips, James Boag’s lager, pavlova.
Note: The chef will happily do a seafood tasting menu.
Scratchpad: Two stars for a convivial—if slightly uncomfortable—barroom setting, and food that isn’t an afterthought.