BY DONNA MINKOWITZ | We cracked the lobster’s claws together and shoved the meat in our mouths. There was drawn butter all over the table and my hands. My wife kept slipping me more fresh-killed meat. “You need to keep your strength up.”
I pulled off one of the lobster’s legs and sucked the little hole, marveling. I’d never found a Homarus americanus worth going after the minuscule meat in its legs before. This inexpensive one on Bleecker Street was worth thrusting one way, then the other, wrenching, cracking, drawing out with your teeth, and sucking.
Fish Restaurant is the opposite of a fancy place. On the mirror over the bar it says, “Please throw your peanut shells on the floor,” and people do. Cute, un-well-heeled diners of all colors seek out crab, oysters, and clams in the somewhat narrow space, where a table in the front is disturbingly made level with a now-filthy cloth napkin shoved under its leg.
The happy, sexy surprises to be found at a West Village joint called Fish
I don’t order steamed lobsters outside of Rhode Island or Massachusetts all that often, because I expect to be disappointed. They are usually (a) rubbery or (b) untenably expensive for what is actually happening in your mouth.
But the lobster dinner at Fish (a “market price,” often $29, includes fries, corn on the cob, and clams) was served piping hot, straight out of the pot, and cooked for exactly the right amount of time. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a lobster more, not even on Block Island, where nearly every shellfish served could make you go out of your mind. That lobstery taste — a mixture of labia, mushroom, and nipple (and then all of those flavors, dipped in butter) — was the best thing I’ve had in many years. The 1 1/4 pounds of it went wonderfully with Fish’s prosecco (Pergolo, $11 a glass; other terrific wines can be had for $7-$9).
I have to say straight out that the three small half-ears of corn on the plate tasted like packing peanuts. They were overcooked and had been kept far away from butter or salt. If the waiter lets you, substitute one of the excellent green-vegetable sides (sautéed spinach was a delicate, garlicky marvel, and collard greens were Southern and ripe). But the fries were great and crispy, and the three top-neck clams (not steamers as the menu claimed, but better, in my view) had been prepared with a very light touch and were probably the best steamed clams I’ve ever had.
On a second visit, I got what was called an appetizer portion of steamed King Crab legs ($22), which, most oddly for Manhattan, was large enough to serve as my dinner entrée. The taste was more delicate than lobster but just as sexy. Lesbians and gay men, come on down and sample that ephemeral, moist, froggy, genital taste. It was rich and peculiar dipped in a little drawn butter, and completely satisfying.
The crab turned out to be so far superior to the $45-$60 version served at the yuppie Village restaurant Fatty Crab that it could make you organize a demonstration at the latter. It came with an unlikely, delicious, and very fresh salad of field greens and tomatoes.
Where did this place come from, table-balancing dirty napkin, cheap wonders, and all? It was opened in 1998 by local seafood distributor Edward Taylor and initially intended as a fine-dining joint. But when the original chef, his business partner, left two years later, Taylor, who got his start storing clams in the basement of the apartment house where he lived on Christopher Street, decided to change it up. “I wanted it to be a simple, simple seafood place, as reasonably priced as possible,” he said in a recent interview. The former porter, Christian Perez, became the chef. A straight man who lived in the then-gayest part of the city for 30 years, Taylor has beautifully windswept, slightly long gray hair and dark eyes, like a handsome version of Captain Ahab. He now divides his time between Gay Street and Purdy’s in Westchester, and owns Down East Seafood, which supplies over 200 restaurants and caterers.
Down East has more than 70 employees in its 17,000-foot location in the South Bronx, and Taylor says many are gay men, leading to a new tradition in the warehouse: every Friday is Tiara Day. Women, including Taylor’s current business partner, Tanya Maczko, are also leading figures in the company.
Alas, not everything at Fish is delicious. You can get awesome fried clams at just about every cheap joint on the coast from Connecticut to Maine, but here they are a bready abomination ($15 for an appetizer, $26 for an entrée with two sides). Canned potato chips and diner oatmeal (these clams taste like a combination of them) would be more worth the calories. And we actually bit down on big pieces of clamshell that had been breaded accidentally and somehow lost among those poor, bread-smothered nubs of clam.
Dine at Fish anyway. Fried calamari ($14) were only okay, but the fried hush puppies served with a blackened catfish dinner (good, $21, and including the collard greens) were complex and terrific. In addition to fried seafood, I would advise you to avoid the soups. Seafood gumbo had lovely, fresh shrimp and one nice oyster, but the soup base itself was bland, gummy, and weirdly spiced, and did not blend with the proteins. The gumbo definitely wasn’t worth $8 for a cup ($10 for a bowl). The New England clam chowder was even worse, with hardly any clams and an overly thin broth. In general, I’d advise you to steer clear of items on the menu that are not steamed, grilled, or raw.
This is probably one of the best places in the city to get raw oysters and clams. A popular special, available at all hours, gets you half a dozen clams or Blue Point oysters, along with an excellent chardonnay or merlot or a Pabst Blue Ribbon, for $9. The clams were fantastic, the Blue Points only okay, a little smaller and less meaty than usual. Both came with two phenomenal sauces, housemade cocktail sauce more subtle and less sweet than many and a reddish mignonette that was the best I’ve tried. I’ve never been a big fan of Blue Points anyway, and would suggest going with more exotic oysters, like West Coast Kumamotos ($2.75 each) or Fanny Bays ($2.25), or Wellfleets ($2) or Spinney Creeks ($2). All the oysters are wonderfully cheap, evidently a result of Taylor sourcing them himself. (The Blue Points, if you like them, are only $1.25.)
As I’m trying to get across, this is a great date restaurant, much more so than any joint with a snooty maître d’. Waitstaff are friendly and helpful (plastic bibs are handed out with the lobsters, and wait and bar staff give honest advice when asked). The place can get crowded, especially on weekend nights, so it’s best to go early.
One sophisticated dish, a scallop ceviche with tomato and jalapeno, was fresh and surprisingly good ($14 and enormous, like all the appetizers here). But my most startling dish at Fish was a so-called tuna salad sandwich at lunch ($16). I love tuna in almost all its forms, including the canned stuff with mayonnaise on rye. But this grilled variety, roughly chopped and very lightly infiltrated with mayo on a split bun, was like an elite lobster roll or crab roll that had somehow happened to a tuna. It tasted of the sea and our bodies, and was sexy in a way I have never found tuna salad before.
Fish Restaurant, 280 Bleecker Street at Jones Street (fishrestaurant.nyc; 212-727-2879) is open Sunday-Thursday, noon to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday, noon to midnight, and does not take reservations. The entrance is narrow, and bathrooms are down a long flight of stairs.