December 7, 2008 | BITE: My Journal

In the Garden under the Sea

Calamari stuffed with chorizo rice on puddles of tomato vinaigrette. Photo: Steven Richter
Calamari stuffed with chorizo rice on puddles of tomato vinaigrette. Photo: Steven Richter

        With just 50 seats and not much aisle, and given its elite gastropub provenance, born out of Spotted Pig with April Bloomfield at the stove and Ken Friedman wheeling about out front, John Dory will not be easy for mere mortals to crash. I got lucky. Our dinner buddy knew someone. That’s how Tuesday we sailed into the perfect storm of restaurant critics (click here for a roll call) that has Friedman speed-walking backwards and sideways trying to look cool while the chef dispatches exquisitely briny tidbits from the kitchen as well as the smoked arctic char mousse “amuse” to spread on fried parsnip chips. 

Mirrors reflect the aquarium that divides the modest space. Photo: Steven Richter

           It’s safe to predict you’ll want to come by too, not just because you’re masochistic and need to go where you can’t get in, but because the sea creatures are impeccably fresh and mostly good and the place is funny and finny. Seashells glued on mirrors. Whimsical fish in stained glass and illuminated Lucite underfoot, on tiles, and live in a giant aquarium that divides the space and is reflected in mirrors.  Even a shy yellow eel wakes up when Friedman tosses the fish their scallop lunch into the tank. 

        “Best fed fish in town,” says Joe Bastianach (with Mario Batali, consulting partners here and at Spotted). Bastianach stands at the bar, a sleek ninja of the dining room, sipping wine, hooded eyes watching for flare-ups.  “But the fish don’t get the scallops with pomegranate,” our server notes, referring to a $16 crudo. 

Oyster pan roast with creamy sea urchin butter crostini. Photo: Steven Richter

        She’s a jaunty Hepburnesque dame, elegant, flip, impressive, knows the history and geography of every dish. In fact, the staff seems remarkably well-coached here, right down to the chap hustling excellent bread.  Minced ginger heats up the eloquence of stunningly firm yellowtail crudo at the perfect temperature. Chopped and marinated razor clam seviche nests in a small bowl against a bright green garlicky sauce with scallion and chive.

Tasting the John Dory with salsa verde seems obligatory. Photo: Steven Richter

        For those bruised by sudden unemployment and portfolio distress, prices may seem forbidding.  Oysters are $4 each and those sensational crudos and appetizers start at $16 and run to $20 for a counterculture steak tartare, with the
Bastianach, Friedman by Richter
exception of an unpleasant swamp of escarole salad at $14.  Grilled octopus with celery, fennel and bottarga at $20 is big enough to share but the critter would be better with a caramelized edge. Lemon zest and barely cooked spinach give youth to that old warhorse, oysters Rockefeller.  I’d go for the luscious oyster pan roast with sea urchin butter crostini for the same aggressive price tag and not give one bite to anyone.  A skimpy portion of John Dory with salsa verde ($28) is cruelly overcooked for my taste. But I’d be back for sensational seared squid plumped full of chorizo rice stuffing with beans, crème fraîche and a tomato vinaigrette. Wine by the glass comes in quartino carafes.

        On a whim, I chose a side for my main course, “Jensen’s temptation” – scalloped potatoes with onion, not as lush as I expected. I’m curious now to go back. This is a first tasting report after all. I’m eager to try the fish stew and pan-roasted cod with mantecato (Venetian cod paste), chili and artichoke chips.  A food writer friend reports that the black pepper Dungeness crab is delicious, torrid and messy – a two napkin  challenge. Sounds perfect to me.

       Desserts like treacle pudding, cider jelly with cardamom cream, something called eccles cake with Stilton cheese seem lost in translation, but our shared quince almond tart with ginger ice cream, meager at $11, leaps the cultural divide.

Quince almond tart leaps the cultural divide of English desserts. Photo: Steven Richter

        Given all the hard surfaces, with only Black Watch plaid fabric lined banquettes to absorb sound, it’s some kind of acoustic miracle that we can actually talk and hear ourselves. “It’s basically a bar and a counter next to the kitchen, like Momofuku, except the seats have backs,” Friedman says. “Some people can’t handle the noise at the Spotted Pig so we hired this expensive acoustics guy to help us keep the sound level low. And I’m wearing socks.”

85 Tenth Avenue between 15th and 16th Street. 212 929 4948

Hard Times in the Crisp Department

        First the air seeped out of my ballooning ego along with my paycheck when I got fired. Now I’m losing my essential Eli Health Crisps. Life doesn’t get easier with the wisdom of age, I can assure you. I’ve been lobbying both Fairway and Eli Zabar for a price pullback on Eli’s brown Health Crisps after watching the tariff climb from $2.98 to an outrageous $5.49 for seven ounces. The price went up three times in the past year and a half alone.  And I do love a crisp or three with my occasional egg white scramble at breakfast.

        Given the drop in flour and gas prices alone, a price shave and a haircut would have been timely.  So when I spotted Eli’s rosemary-olive crisps marked $4.49 in Fairways bread section, I thought it was victory for my activism and wrote about it in BITE. A few days later a new batch of Health Crisps appeared, still $5.49.  I’d written too soon. I was mortified. I caught Eli on his cell phone in Paris and he said he would like to make me an honest woman but he’d have to look into it when he got home.  I did my mea culpa in my November 19 Fork Play newsletter.

        And then Eli, too cowardly for confrontation, sicced Mark, who prices his wholesale baked goods, on me and I got a snippy lecture on economics…rising labor costs, minimum wage, soaring gas and electricity. “Flour is the smallest part of it,” he declared.

        “You mean you are not going to lower the price?” I cried.

        “No. Never.”

        I am no fool.  Eli makes the $5.49 Health Crisps and the $4.49 rosemary-olive variety in the same warehouse with the same workers. I tried to budge him. I truly did.  So from now on I’m boycotting his crisps of any flavor, even the discounted broken sourdough chips, which aren’t that good anyway.

       Friday I bought 13 ½ ounces of fat-free Snyder’s sourdough pretzels for $2.89. They’re too delicious, alas, and contain 100 calories each. I never thought about the calories in Health Crisps. (Apparently Eli can pretend his crisps don’t have calories because when he delivers to Fairway and his brother at Zabar’s, the truck doesn’t cross state lines. Mayor Bloomberg should get the health department on the case.)    


Third Time Tells the Tale

The must-have duck hash with poached egg at BarBao.  Photo: Steven Richter     

      Introducing neighborhood friends to the sensational Vietnamese food at BarBao, Steven and I have been back twice in ten days. Michael Huynh, the wandering chef, now a partner, is still in the kitchen even though he must have taken some time off to help his wife Thao Nguyen open Baoguette, a small sandwich and noodle shop at 61 Lexington, between 25th and 26th Streets.

American Waygu hanger steak on vegetables with condiments. Photo: Steven Richter

        BarBao’s designers have been finishing collages overhead and in strips between beams on the walls and tonight the bar-lounge has its old-time Saigon look intact.  A second bar  lounge in the rear is finished too with just one table occupied on Saturday night.  I can’t understand why the place isn’t jumping till I go on line and discover that Yelpers ( don’t like the food. Is that an internet consensus? Who are these people?  The vox populi of the plastic fork set? 

        I’m just going to assume you’re reading this because you trust me.  Tonight I try not to be too bossy, but I’m eager to share dishes I love: The sensational summer rolls (I wish they came with with herbs and lettuce wraps), lush short rib on lemongrass skewers, and salt and pepper sweetbreads with a pickled peach. My favorite duck hash with mellow chunks of daikon pancake and a perfect poached egg to pierce with a fork has all of us swooning.  We ask for an extra lamb chop so everyone can drag a rare lamb lollypop through cilantro salsa. Tonight we’re tasting Tiger shrimp salad with shaved fennel rather than the usual peel-and-eat chili shrimp I like even better. 

        The Road Food Warrior and I focus on small plates not just because I’m an infamous pinch penny but also because starters seem more Vietnamese than main courses – which aren’t really that expensive at $16 to $27 for a whole red snapper.  Grilled American Wagyu hanger steak, Mekong Delta seafood clay pot, and bean-curd glazed black cod with preserved lemon are favorites. Vietnamese churros with sesame and two dipping sauces is the chef’s newest fusion. These are a bit greasy.  A better choice is kabocha squash flan with water chestnut tapioca and red wine puree or pandam (vanilla) flan with Chinese red dates and gingko nuts.

        BarBao is exactly what I hoped for in the Upper West Side restaurant renaissance and it’s half a mile from my pad. If only they would deliver.

100 West 82nd Street near Columbus Avenue. 212 501 0776
Taste or No Taste

        Here’s your chance to Ask Gael, quiz Ed Levine or query Aquavit chef Marcus Samuelsson.  We’ll be debating food world trends and techniques at the 92nd Street Y next Monday, December 15 at 8:15 p.m., joined by a top editor from Bon Appetit and moderated by Mike Colameco of WOR’S Foodtalk. After a Q&A from the audience, we’ll all be signing books. Call 212 415 5500 for information.


A Feast for Your Eyes

Woman in White at Angkor Wat by Steven Richter

        It’s patriotic to shop. Do your bit for our economy at the Road Food Warrior’s Stimulus Sale.  Steven Richter is selling large color photographs from his retrospective at the Aspen Institute, framed, for the price of the photograph alone. He promises to plow the money back into the economy immediately. To see a selection of his work and learn more about sizes and editions, click here for Steven Richter’s Stimulus Sale.

Dolls in a Window in Rome by Steven Richter



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