October 1, 2012 | BITE: My Journal
Crave Fishbar: How Green It Is
Fried chicken thigh with fabulous peppers and a vinegary edge exactly to my taste.
I can almost guarantee that no other chef has ever put together a bluefish salad with quite the same tangle of greenery as the smoked fish “bouquet” at Crave Fishbar. In four decades of grilled red snapper you could knock me over with a dill feather if you discover a fish decked out with the passion for greenery and verve of Chef Todd Mitgang’s.
Fight your way through the forest of fine greenery to find smoked bluefish.
That’s what draws me back, three times now, across an island from my pad: The chef’s green vision. So much of what he sends out of his kitchen fairly vibrates with leafy things, unexpected garden vegetables and as if that were not enough, pebbles of grains.
Grains and greens and local beans glorify the John Dory though I’d like it less cooked.
Let Eric Ripert honor the fish as the star of the plate at Le Bernardin. At Crave Fishbar, the seafood is sometimes almost second fiddle. No fish need ever stand alone. Tonight’s John Dory with basil pesto, local wax beans, shallots and pistachio wheatberry salad is a tonic. Not just a bow to good health, but a delight to the eye even though it’s overcooked for my taste. Of course, I neglected to say “rarish please.”
So many textures and glorious flavors in the crab salad sing like a chorus in my mouth.
The complexity of fresh crab as a starter is not just a visual triumph. Niblets of fresh sauteed corn, mellow garbanzo puree, a crunch of zucchini and the tang of lemon prawn oil come together like a chorus in my mouth. Surely it’s the corn that has me keening. I never got enough all summer. But soon there will be no fresh corn in the market and I’ve no doubt the chef will come up with an unexpected pinch hitter.
The flounder hides under summer’s luxuriant greens. What will winter bring?
True, it’s the greenery that stands out – atop the roasted tomato, parsley gremolata, lardo and bread crumbs I waded through to find beautifully poached local flounder in July, or the choy sum leaves, ginger and smoked oyster sauce elevating local hake to the best-dressed list.
Hake with choy sum leaves, ginger and smoked oyster sauce is a dish I hope to eat again.
There’s no question Mitgang had an awakening during his retreat to Montauk two years ago after a crane smashed into Crave Ceviche killing seven construction workers. He’d always looked for quality products for the kitchen at Cascabel Tacqueria. But later as the chef at South Edison near the tip of Long Island, he started visiting farms and meeting fishermen at the docks. He came to focus more on season and sustainability. “It seemed important to help them survive.”
The baby jagger was our favorite that first July tasting. In fall, I liked the crabhattan.
Crave Fishbar, in a narrow duplex across the street from the disaster, is the flowering of that vision. It’s smartly decked out with plumbing pipe fixtures, pecky cyprus siding, a long bar for dining, a few yellow-grey-white-plaid banquettes out back and doors thrown open to a small sidewalk café.
Fried pine island oysters wear vinegared Brussells sprouts and mustard now.
I’m not sure the tall stools at tiny rounds for two opposite the bar are that comfortable. I like to sit closer to the floor. But we’re settled like royalty in a booth with partners Jason Steinthal and Brian Owens dancing attendance. Steinthal delivers a gift from the kitchen: raw black bass with cider glaze, young ginger and crabapple, festooned with micro basil and upland cress. Later he finds an abandoned umbrella at the front podium so we can dash out into an unexpected squall to grab a cab.
Scallop crudo went from grilled mushrooms and curry oil here to sweet potato and nori.
In July, scallop crudo -- piled into a ceramic shell with grilled king oyster mushrooms, long beans, curry oil and finger limes -- is first of all exquisite, then thrilling as the textures and flavors dance. A few nights into fall the dish had evolved into spicy scallop crudo with nori powder, fingerling sweet potato and oyster crackers.
Mitgang had time in late August to work on developing his own bread, a wonderfully rich whole wheat country loaf with a charred crust. It comes out of the oven fresh every day just before service. Come early enough and it might still be warm.
Braised Colorado lamb ribs get a spicy ancho chili salsa with Mexican accents to finish.
And Crave just starts with the sea. Raw black bass and local fluke, pan-roasted prawns, lobster curry with apple and Japanese eggplant in a deep bowl, pork and octopus sausage with mushroom and tomato tossed on tagliatelle. Colorado lamb ribs are roasted in ancho chile salsa till the meat falls off the bones. Of course there’s a slow- cooked egg – it’s like a twitch, that egg, everywhere – here atop asparagus and lobster mushroom, with pecorino toscano and roasted garlic sorrel puree. I wasn’t exaggerating when I described his bent for originality.
This was the olive oil poached octopus in July. I’m sure it will return for fall.
Sometimes it’s one or two too many ingredients invited to the party, as with the vinegar-fried chicken leg. First time I tasted it, sitting on Israeli couscous with Adirondack cheddar, pepper relish and cippolini onions, it just didn’t work. Last week the cheese had somehow melded more voluptuously and it all came together: the peppers crunchy and shockingly electric, the chicken wonderfully moist. Golden tilefish with a cupboard of add-ons – pea puree, artichoke, Romano beans, black barley and Moroccan ras el hanout –was surprisingly delicious.
Local Golden tile fish came with swirls of pea puree and black barley.
Homemade sheep’s milk cavatelli on a summer menu were tiny and tight and drowned in much too much heirloom tomato ragout. Cherrystone clam and kale soup reminded me I can live without kale.
The toss of fig, blue cheese and macademia nuts needed slightly less chewy sprouts.
Now near the end of September, I try to love the fresh fig salad with smoked blue cheese and candied macadamias. It’s tossed with raw Brussels sprouts leaves he uses as bowls to catch chorizo vinaigrette. Great flavor kerfuffle but a torture to chew. I beg the chef to consider blanching the leaves. I rarely voice a complaint. I usually just write it. But the dish could be wonderful if it didn’t taste like chewing plastic.
Chocolate chip cookie a la mode arrives soft and warm= just out of the oven.
In summer, the chef was just building his dessert list. An embryonic peach tart needed work. My favorite was a big chocolate chip cookie warm from the oven with ice cream, still on the menu for just $5. Now there’s an almond financier with peach and flourless chocolate cake with cashew buttercream. I am hacking away at the tough but delicious cookie crumb crust of a sour cream tart that needs to be creamier when the chef comes out for a quick hello.
He lingers only a minute. Yes, the new baby arrived, His name is Hugh. Mitgang accepts a compliment on his way with greenery and then races away. The house is packed. He’s running a tight kitchen. Crave Fishbar remains a work in progress. Crews are still putting the second floor space together. The hydroponic garden on the roof will have to wait for spring. But there is a happily obsessed poet with a mind of his own in the kitchen. The man loves to cook. I can’t wait to come again.
945 Second Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets. 646 895 9585. Dinner only right now. Monday through Wednesday 5:30 to 10 pm, Thursday through Saturday till 11:30. Sunday 4:30 till 9 pm.