Serious Fancy Pants Review: The John Dory

Editor's note: Our man-in-burgers Nick Solares turns out to have a nose and a palate for things other than beef. He frequently eats out in serious, somewhat pricey restaurants, so we figured we'd let him out of his burger cage long enough to write the occasional restaurant review. Oh Nick, here's a brown-nosing tip for you: Next time, ask the Serious Eats overlord to go with you. —Ed Levine

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The John Dory

85 10th Avenue (b/n West 15th and 16th Streets; map); 212-929-4948; thejohndory.com
Service: Formal and courteous but friendly
Setting: Tightly packed room, covered stem to stern with fish effigies, all under very blue lighting
Must haves: Oyster pan roast, John Dory for two, squid stuffed with chorizo, Jensen's temptation, treacle pudding
Cost: Appetizers range from $15 to $20, main courses $24 to $50, sides $8 to $10, Deserts $10 to $20
Grade: A-

Dining in The John Dory is not unlike eating in a fish tank, but not the enormous one dividing the bar from the small seating area in the back of the restaurant itself. That one is a majestic, spacious, naturally lit, and an almost stylish salt water tank stocked with coral and colorful, exotic fish. I am referring to one of those fish tanks that's long and tall but narrow in front-to-back depth and overstuffed with brightly colored decorations—effigies of sea life, kitsch bordering on tack, bathed in tinted light, in this case overwhelmingly blue bordering on turquoise in hue.

The John Dory is the latest venture from The Spotted Pig owner and Michelin-starred chef April Bloomfield and her partner Ken Friedman. While the Spotted Pig is a gastro-pub with a casual mood, John Dory is more formal—they have a sommelier and when you go to the bathroom the waitstaff will fold your napkin for you. The menu aims higher as well, both in complexity and price. And while the Spotted Pig focused on burgers and pig parts, John Dory is a seafood restaurant.

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Things get off to a good start once you sardine yourself into the dining room's cramped seating or preferably (for the view and lighting) when you find a seat at the bar or opposite the open galley, I mean kitchen.

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The amuse is a pâté of arctic char which is smokey, savory, and fishy, served with crispy, slightly bitter parsnip chips. It's a delight and you will crave more than the thimble-sized portion. Don't miss the bread either, which comes from Del Posto next-door and is brimming with life, especially the nutty miniature whole grain baguettes. The appetizers are mostly excellent—a meaty half lobster ($15) perfectly poached just past translucence comes slathered in butter and herbs and accompanied by a tangy aioli.

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The oyster pan roast ($20) is served with a broth so creamy and toothsome, it threatens to match the flavor of the oysters themselves, as does the accompanying crostini with its generous smearing of sea urchin. The dish is rich enough to be a main course. But there are some disappointments—the oyster Rockefeller ($15) lacks the bawdy decadence that the dish is capable of. The thick fish soup ($15) is an anemic, one-note affair.

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Not so with the main course fish stew ($30). A little like an Anglicized bouillabaisse, it's strewn with scallops and mussels in a hearty aioli-topped broth with a rotating cast of fish—on my visit, it was hunks of John Dory and black bass.

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20090114-JohnDory-dory2.jpgThe restaurants signature dish, the John Dory for two ($50), is really quite good although the pre-apportioned presentation of the whole fish lacks the spectacle associated with a similar display of a whole chicken or a sizzling Côte de Bœuf in other restaurants.

It does not look particularly appetizing on a plate that resembles a dessicated prehistoric fossil. But once it's deboned for you (almost perfectly, though my first bite contained a piece of cartilage) and doused in a tangy salsa verde laced with tarragon, it looks far more appealing. The soft, flaky white skin has a mild, delicate flavor and would be far less compelling without the accompanying sauce. Similarly the grilled Sea Bream ($27) would be rather mundane but for the lashings of beurre blanc and sprinkling of smokey bacon.

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The squid ($24) is expertly stuffed with chorizo and rice imbued with saffron, griddle cooked and served over a warm cannellini bean salad. The only knock against the dish is the portion size—rather stingy, almost appetizer-small. Still, I don't know if I've had better squid in this town.

20090114-JohnDory-char.jpg A recent addition to the menu is an arctic char ($27)—perfectly cooked to medium rare with a skin so crisp, it could make pork belly envious. With a crispy exterior and buttery inner flesh, the accompanying chips are the best I can remember eating this side of the Atlantic, and they are accompanied by a silky, tart Bearnaise sauce.

But the fish itself, despite being flawlessly cooked, was somewhat bland and illustrates why so many (myself included) are swooning at what Bloomfield is doing. At her best, she ravishes her catch with swaths of butter, expertly cuts it with lemon and spikes it with spicy chorizo or briny anchovies and heaps of fresh herbs.

If you are on a budget, either fiscal or caloric, this is not the place for you. The incredibly rich food comes with an equally rich price tag. I wouldn't say the prices are exorbitant but they're definitely on the high side. Although there have been some recalibration of the pricing since the John Dory opened two months ago.

The oyster Rockefeller still costs $15 but the portion size has gone from two to three oysters, and when I last ate there, I noticed a plate with four. The rib eye for two ($110) is no longer on the menu, according to the hostess. It just didn't sell, which is frankly not surprising at a fish emporium. It was replaced by a disappointingly mushy hanger steak ($30) served with oysters and some uncharacteristically bland marrow (the marrow is no better on the sweet potatoes either). The hanger has been replaced by a sirloin, which leaves me wondering why Bloomfield didn't just put the famed Spotted Pig burger on the menu and be done with the meat issue.

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Of the sides, I recommend the Jensen's temptation: a Swedish dish containing potatoes ensconced in cream and anchovies over sweet potatoes. But as much of the menu veers towards France, the Mediterranean and even Scandinavia, Bloomfield's British roots are evident in the desserts.

20090114-JohnDory-eccles%20cake.jpgTake the buttery Eccles cake stuffed with acidic currents and served with a wedge of blue cheese—either Stilton or the similar Stichelton, a wonderful mix of sweet of savory. Or a Magners cider jelly (that would be jello in American) topped with a dollop of cream.

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But do not miss the spongy, airy, steamed treacle pudding that comes saturated in Lyle’s golden syrup and blanketed in a perfect, velvety custard. It is big enough for four people and is the best incarnation of the dish I have encountered on either side of the Atlantic.

A friend commented that while he adores Bloomfield's food, the restaurant's decor made him seasick. My reaction is not quite that dramatic. I don't need Dramamine to dine here. And I find that the restaurant's virtues—the food itself, as well as the service which is doting and manages to be both formal and familiar—more than make up for any aesthetic misgivings I may have. The price of admission if relatively high but so are the heights scaled by Bloomfield's best efforts.

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