The John Dory
The shuttered seafood spot swims again.
Fri Jan 7 2011
Photographs: Lizz Kuehl
Time Out Ratings :<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5
April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman, a chef-restaurateur team with rare staying power, seem to have an instinctive read on where New York's food mores are heading—not following trends, but often presaging them. The pair opened the meat-focused Breslin in late 2009, foretelling the awfully carnivorous year that followed. And their latest endeavor, the resurrected John Dory, also at the Ace Hotel, is the first in a string of new seafood eateries—among them Fish Tag, Millesime and Goat Town—already making their mark in 2011.
The original Meatpacking District John Dory was an ambitious, pricey endeavor; it shuttered in the summer of 2009, when the bottom fell out of the local restaurant scene. But its reincarnation, pegged for these still-shaky times, is less fussy than its forebear, with no reservations, no pretense and no exorbitant entres. In fact, there are no entres at all. The new John Dory is an oyster bar in the classic sense: a casual place for bivalves and plates of glorified bar food, with tall stools facing seafood chilled on mountains of seaweed and ice.
The oysters, a rotating mix of East and West Coast varieties, are expertly handled and impeccably sourced, served with plenty of liquor. A well-shucked oyster is the sort of simple pleasure that mostly characterizes the new understated John Dory. Gone is the kitschy aquatic decor, the flea-market jumble replaced by a few artful items—a fish poster here, a seashell sconce there, a pair of aquariums over the bar.
The menu too retains only a trace of its predecessor, reprising just a few winners. The shellfish pan-roast that had been a highlight in MePa has been pared down here to a miniature bowl of intense, creamy broth—rich as ever—floating a few plump, barely poached oysters. A squid starter that was another star—seared bodies stuffed with paella rice and spicy chorizo—has returned as an equally stellar pass-around small plate, served in an Iberian earthenware crock.
Warm dishes take their cues mostly from the garlic-and-olive-oil belt, which makes perfect sense given the new tapas-style focus. Meaty octopus doused in aioli is a dreamy riff on a Spanish classic, while miniature mussels stuffed with boisterous mortadella meatballs beautifully channel the Italian coast.
Despite the scaled-back ambitions, the food overall remains as intensely flavored as it was at the old place—Bloomfield doesn't do subtle. Even a simple crudo of chopped razor clams anointed with sea salt and lemon tastes larger than life, as does a chilled half lobster, its sweet flesh doused in an herbaceous tomalley vinaigrette.
Desserts, like bittersweet chocolate pudding with whiskey-spiked cream, are of the homey sort also served at the Breslin. Though the utilitarian sweets aren't much worth sticking around for, the savory food here merits the wait—up to an hour most nights. In its sleeker, muted iteration, the John Dory has truly found its bearings.
Eat this: Oysters on the half shell, chilled lobster, oyster pan-roast, octopus, stuffed mussels
Drink this: The cocktail list here, devised by Sasha Petraske, includes fine seafood-friendly refreshers like a zippy cucumber rickey ($12). A house beer, the smooth and rich John Dory Oyster Stout ($8), is made for the restaurant by Sixpoint in Red Hook. If you prefer wine, a glass of Portuguese vinho verde from Grinalda ($10) is a perfect, crisp match for oysters.
Sit here: The seating, limited here to high chairs and stools, is casual (and frankly uncomfortable) no matter where you end up. For a view of your drinks being mixed, grab a seat at the bar. To keep an eye on your oysters, the best bet is a stool at the raw bar.
Conversation piece: The pair of fish tanks over the bar are stocked with colorful sea creatures—the one to the east is filled with Atlantic specimens, the one to the west with Pacific.
Ace Hotel, 1196 Broadway at 29th St (212-792-9000). Subway: N, R to 28th St. Mon--Sat noon--2am. Average small plate: $14.