The John Dory Oyster Bar
1196 Broadway, New York NY 10001 (at 29th Street in the Ace Hotel; map); 212-792-9000; thejohndory.com
Setting: Casual and comfortable, with a bit of high-class kitsch
Compare to: Mermaid Oyster Bar Must-Haves: Oyster Pan Roast, Crab and Puntarelle Salad, Parsley and Anchovy Toast
Cost: Bar Snacks $3.50 to $11, Small Plates $8.50 to $15, Desserts $7
The original John Dory, chef-partner April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman's upscale seafood restaurant, shuttered its doors after less than a year in operation, despite being well-received; a bad location (10th Avenue) was the explanation. Well, it's back, this time with an even more casual bent, right on Broadway.
According to Bloomfield, there was some disagreement between her and Friedman over the concept of the original restaurant; he eventually talked her out of giving it a Mediterranean slant, focusing more on the British fare that put their first endeavor, The Spotted Pig, on the map.
This time around, Bloomfield's gotten her way: She's opened the city's first oyster bar without an England/New England bent. Indeed, the kitchen doesn't even have a fryer, precluding the possibility of oyster bar classics like fried clams and fish & chips. The result is a startlingly original menu that, refreshingly, doesn't rely as heavily on the pork and bacon that dot the menu at Bloomfield's other spots.
Some degree of kitsch seems to be a prerequisite for an oyster bar, and the John Dory's got plenty of it, though tastefully applied. Wooden fish are mounted on the wall, while miniature coral reefs sit in spherical tanks above the bar. You have to pull on a brass clam shell to open the front door. That kind of thing.
As an oyster bar, you can depend on bracingly briny, freshly shucked oysters, some from both coasts. We tried briny Pemaquids from Maine and creamy, metallic Kushis from British Columbia. They're served with either a jalapeño-laced mignonette or hot, freshly grated horseradish. Either is a fine accompaniment, if not startlingly original.
Things start to get interesting with the bar snacks.
Bloomfield is one of the city's french fry masters, but with no fryers in the kitchen, they aren't an option. Roasted Peanuts with Garlic and Rosemary ($3.50) are the peanut equivalent of the Spotted Pig fries, which are made with the same herbs. Parsley and Anchovy Toast ($4) is a typically ingenious Bloomfield creation: An intense, deeply flavored green paste made of anchovies, Italian parsley, and olive oil is slathered on toast. It's unlike any pesto you've ever had.
The raw bar and crudo sections of the menu thrive on their simplicity: candy-sweet Nantucket Bay Scallops ($14) come with nothing but a simple emulsion of olive oil and lemon juice. Cold Poached Lobster with Tamale Vinaigrette ($18) (I think they actually mean tomalley), on the other hand, was surprisingly blah, despite a deep green roe-based sauce. The sweet knuckle meat was superior to the slightly overcooked tail.
The best of the cold seafood we tried was a deceptively simple Crab and Puntarelle Salad ($18). Ultra-fresh crab dotted with red pepper and a few smears of loose aioli over not-too-bitter greens.
The closest Bloomfield veers towards America is with two chowders: a buttery, creamy Maine Lobster Chowder ($14) and an astounding Oyster Pan Roast ($15), intensely tarragon-y and topped with an even more astounding sea urchin crostini. The only problem with these two items: They are cups of soup for $15, which is a little expensive in terms of quantity, though it's easy to forget the price when you're actually tasting the oysters.
Even better: sop up the remains with the Parker House Rolls ($5). They came highly touted by our server. "People love them. You should have two orders." We resisted that temptation, though these are extremely lovable rolls (though again expensive), buttered and salted and then thrown back in the oven for maximum deliciousness.
On the more substantial end of the small plates, you'll find more Mediterranean-inspired fare like Octopus with Potatoes and Aioli ($15) and Mussels Stuffed with Mortadella ($14). The best part of the octopus dish is the creamy fingerlings underneath the tentacles (which, though delicious, were a bit tough in sections).
The mussels are a bit of Bloomfield genius inspired by a trip to the Veneto region of Italy nearly ten years ago (Bloomfield's got a near-photographic memory for flavors). The mussels are stuffed with olive oil-soaked breadcrumbs; think of them as porky mussels oreganata.
Chorizo-Stuffed Squid with Smoked Tomato ($15) is another dish that could have come straight out of Spain or Portugal, and one of only two holdovers from the restaurant's previous incarnation.
Our waitress told us that the restaurant was trying to move into the sandwich arena. Their first entry: Roasted Pork Sandwich with Red Onion and Tuna Mayonnaise ($15) is essentially pork vitello tonnato on steroids: a thick slice of moist pork topped with perhaps a half cup of tuna mayo. It's a nice concept, but the sandwich is completely out of whack with the tuna mayo dominating the mild pork, and both elements being way too sloppy for the roll. We ended up relying on a fork and knife.
Desserts ($7) also seem to be looking for their way. Not that there was anything wrong with the currant-filled Eccles cake, a chocolate pot with orange zest, or malted chocolate ice cream, but such standard pub fare seemed a little out of place following such an inspired and exciting meal.
Hopefully these minor kinks will be worked out soon, and we're happy that Bloomfield got the restaurant she wanted this time. We should all be happy: The John Dory Oyster Bar is a keeper, a tribute to Bloomfield's restless culinary imagination.
- Ed Levine and J. Kenji Lopez-Alt