The John Dory
Chef April Bloomfield graduates from swine to seafood.
Thu Mar 5 2009
Photograph: Roxana Marroquin
Time Out Ratings :<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5
April Bloomfield must be prescient. Long before white-tablecloth restaurants began dropping like the Dow, the young chef—a veteran of top London kitchens—earned critical raves and a real cult following serving upscale pub grub at the Spotted Pig in the West Village. At her new venue, the John Dory, the expat Brit takes the high-low mash-up into more ambitious territory, offering some of the freshest seafood in town—assertively flavored and impeccably sourced—in a setting that’s nearly as casual as her New York debut. If Le Bernardin’s Eric Ripert were to go “down-market” and downtown, he might serve the sort of food you’ll find here.
While the Pig, as it’s known to regulars, is a standing-room-only madhouse every night of the week, the chaos at the Dory is limited mostly to the decor. Ken Friedman, the music executive turned foodie impresario who shares top billing at both places, personally curated the new restaurant’s onslaught of ocean-themed kitsch. He’s created a psychedelic seafood shack featuring an enormous tropical fish tank, mosaic fish tiles on the floor, stained-glass fish panels on the ceiling and framed fish portraits on every square foot of wall space. Though the decorations, rowdy rock soundtrack and wide-open kitchen are very much in line with the Pig’s relaxed drop-in vibe, beyond the dizzying fun-house facade lurks a far more serious restaurant.
Squid stuffed with rice and chorizo
Photograph: Roxana Marroquin
The John Dory, which unlike its predecessor takes reservations, announces its ambitions right off the bat with a choice of five breads at the start of the meal and an addictive amuse-bouche of silky house-smoked arctic char pt with wispy fried parsnips—the platonic ideal of chips and dip. The wine list is impressive and reasonably priced, and the formal waitstaff—wearing white button-down shirts and ties—is among the most attentive and knowledgeable I’ve encountered at a new restaurant in months (they folded my napkin when I got up from the table, and even topped off my by-the-glass wine when an entre was delayed).
Bloomfield’s focus here is on luxurious, if straightforward, seafood presentations. From the raw bar to the left of the kitchen comes shellfish that tastes just plucked from the sea: exceptional Beau Soleil oysters (the selection changes daily) served on a crushed-ice plateau with horseradish-infused champagne vinegar and cilantro-pepper mignonette; raw bay scallops as sweet as gumdrops, simply seasoned with sea salt and tossed in a light dressing of olive oil and lemon juice.
Those same gorgeous scallops, still in the shell, join razor clams in a creamy wine-soaked shellfish stew, which is served with a big spoon for slurping down the drops of broth you don’t manage to soak up with the garlic-parsley toast perched on the bowl. Though listed as a starter, the dish is substantial enough to make a light supper all by itself.
While entre prices hover in the high $20s, this at its core is still gastropub fare—accessible and not overworked. The restaurant’s upscale play on fish-and-chips features a beautiful fillet of arctic char, crisped on the plancha and served with fine thick-cut fries and lush barnaise. Tender squid bodies, in another filling main, are stuffed with smoky chorizo-flecked short-grain rice (in a sort of inverse paella) before being seared on the griddle.
While much of the menu is Pan-European, the desserts—including Eccles cake (like dry, currant-stuffed strudel) and cider jelly (basically hard-cider Jell-O)—are pure old-school Britain. If you didn’t grow up with this stuff, their appeal may be as lost on you as it was on me. Despite that disappointment, I’d say the John Dory—with its exceptional seafood and service—is the best new restaurant I’ve visited so far this year.
Drink this: The Commodore, a refreshing mix of Mount Gay rum, Carpano vermouth and Fentimans ginger beer ($12); a carafe of crisp muscadet ($10)
Eat this: Raw oysters, raw scallops, wine-steamed shellfish, arctic char with chips, seared squid stuffed with chorizo and rice
Sit here: Pull up a stool at the raw bar for a light drop-in meal, or request the table hidden directly behind the enormous fish tank for a more intimate tte--tte.
Conversation piece: Though you won’t find the restaurant’s namesake critter swimming alongside the scorpion fish and other colorful species in the 900-gallon tank, Bloomfield offers the whole roasted John Dory for two with salsa verde ($50).