September 21, 2009 | BITE: My Journal

If at First…Try Ed’s Chowder House 

Oysters and outsize shrimp to dip in saffron aioli from Chowderhouse’s raw bar. Photo: Steven Richter

        You’d think Jeffrey Chodorow might be pushing the chowder tonight. Chodorow - chowder, they almost rhyme, but no connection. Surrounded by friends and family and demanding tasters from his China Grill restaurant corps on the eve of opening Ed’s Chowder House, where his previous Center Cut couldn’t make the cut, the battered mogul is blissfully obsessing about how wife Linda beat him in a game of speed Scrabble - he who played Scrabble to pay for college. “Do you realize what an accomplishment that is?” he asks. “And she never played at all before we met,” he marvels.

The proof of Ed Brown’s chowders is in the tasting.  Photo: Steven Richter

        Press flacks from two cities pull him away so we can do justice on a quartet of deep bowls, what’s drawn us here with great expectations: chowders by Ed Brown, whose rich-as-Croesus New England ambrosia beguiled us in his 17 years at the Sea Grill.  Recruited as consultant here, Brown has distilled New Jersey sea shore and Montauk getaway tradition into tonight’s quartet: intense essence of corn, Manhattan crab, a New England clam classic, and his namesake over-the-top “Ed’s loaded shellfish” in a small iron kettle. It’s almost incidental that the throwaway luxe of the house’s blowsy crab cake (plump clots of crab barely held together), or savory lobster crumble with a blush of buttery roe have equally defanged the critics at our table. And the brine of clams plus outsize shrimp from the raw bar to dip into saffron aioli boldly fills in a gap between fine fried calamari and spicy chopped salad. (You can even order them as a duo, squid atop spicy veggie nest). A thick fist of tuna with a melting disc of maître d‘butter and fries is exquisitely rare and surprisingly tender.  Crusty skate on horseradish mashed potatoes is quite perfect too. There’s a changing roster of the day’s catch – adorned or simply grilled. But I’ll be back anyway just for that chowder and whatever seasonal riffs autumn and winter deliver to the soup pot when fresh corn is gone.

We nibble on fried calamari served in a mini-crate while waiting for friends. Photo: Steven Richter

        Chodorow gets a lot of barbs from critics, salaried and self-appointed, for his tenacity – call it stubbornness – as he opens one restaurant after another in the quest for staying power in a space he’s leased. I’ve marveled at his cheerful optimism as he jumped in and out of concepts on West 58th, where Kobe Club finally keeled over, and East 22nd, where he and Rocco Di Spirito went toe-to-toe to the death, holding its own now as Almond. No need to go into the begats that climaxed in the doomed Wild Salmon.

With chef Ed in the kitchen you can bet the lobster in lemon butter is perfect. Photo: Steven Richter

        As for his Center Cut across from Lincoln Center, I liked its creative quirks, but suspected it might be hard to sell steak before the ballet or Beethoven, not to mention steak house prices in a time of fiscal cholera. Looking around “at what was working in this economy,” he settled on seafood, the seashore shack image with its intimations of endless summer as “authentic, straightforward and reasonable,” and Ed Brown as the seafood master and Upper West Sider to translate.

A new photo blowup in the stairwell says it’s a seaside experience now. Photo: Steven Richter

        For a big bowl of chowder this good and that virtually standing-alone-crab-cake, I will not make a federal case about the delusion that a breezy coastal seafood cottage has been installed here. Architect Jeffrey Beers did what you see - brighter lighting, chopped down banquettes, recovered chairs, new tabletops, dockside and sea photographs framed in white, a raw bar work station carved into the dining room - on the $1 million dollar allowance Chodorow gave him. Even the blowup photograph on the two story stairwell is new and appropriately fishy. Victorian wing chairs are gone and tables fill in the bar-entry with a grilled striped bass sandwich, lobster rolls and burgers on the bar menu (from 11:30 am till closing once the kitchen starts serving lunch).

A huge square of tuna is perfectly cooked, rare and tender. Photo: Steven Richter

        "They wanted me to whitewash the mahogany paneling so it would look more like a fish house,” Chodorow confides. “But I think one million dollars is enough.” If I use the word disingenuous about Chodorow you might choke, but I must. Disingenuous.  He didn’t have to mention the paneling which, of course, should be white – what’s another two or three hundred thousand if you’ve spent a million? - and who knows what to lure Brown away from a simmer of needs at his own EightyOne.

A nest of watercress and arugula sits atop fresh farm beets. Photo: Steven Richter

        Cocktails that start at $9 are a welcome alcoholic stimulus. Alas, I think Hemingway would prefer a more macho daiquiri. And my mai tai should be boldly fruity, citrusy, not taste like eau de cheap cologne. But you don’t want to trust me, I’d rather eat my calories -- this biscuit and a corn bread finger or a share of the scallop ravioli, a taste of the baked spiced corn side – than get high on them. It wouldn’t be summer at the seashore without blueberry crumble.  We order one for the five of us and it arrives with a bruléed pudding, chocolate cake, and chocolate beignets to dip into chocolate. The price and the reward of being a critic at a family tasting. We’re told desserts are still a work in progress.

        The challenge will be to keep the kitchen under executive chef Jamie Knott, a China Grill Group veteran, turning out food as good as it is tonight after Brown decides he feels comfortable enough to shift his focus back to his own uptown estate.  Jeffrey’s not worried. “It’s less than a mile way. He can go back and forth now. And come anytime we need him later.” 

        “Maybe by bicycle,” Brown muses.

        No, Chodorow’s not worried at all. “Remember, Ed has his name on it.”

44 West 63rd Street at Broadway in the Empire Hotel, second floor. 212 956 1288. Dinner Sunday and Monday 5 to 10:30 pm; Tuesday through Saturday 5 to 11:30 pm. In a few weeks, the restaurant will be serving lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 am to 2:30 pm; brunch Saturday and Sunday from 11:30 am to 3:30 pm. At that time the Chowder Bar will open everyday serving from 11:30 am until closing.

Providing a continuous lifeline to homebound elderly New Yorkers