222 West 79th Street, New York NY 10024 (b/n Broadway and Amsterdam; map); 212-362-7394; fishtagrestaurant.com
Service: Welcoming if not yet polished
Setting: Cape Cod meets the Upper West Side, nautically modern
Must-Haves: Tuna crostini, smoked octopus, branzino with headcheese
Cost: $10-18 apps, $16-26 mains (generously portioned)
Michael Psilakis has a long history on this lower level of 222 West 79th Street—a space that's been through as many incarnations as its current Chef du Cuisine, Ryan Skeen, has been through restaurants of late.
Six years ago, Psilakis opened the Greek restaurant Onera; two years later, it became the toned-down, more affordable Kefi, which has since moved a few blocks north. Classed-up diner Gus and Gabriel lasted a year, to mixed reviews; and now, after its closing in August, comes Fish Tag—a fish restaurant that's a lot more than a fish restaurant.
In what sense? Well, though just about every dish on the menu includes seafood, an awful lot of dishes include something else, too: in your tour through this ocean, you'll find headcheese and chorizo, spicy lamb and guanciale. Ordering at Fish Tag can be an overwhelming experience—either exciting or vexing, depending on your mood. With 60 different items you can order and nearly a dozen seperate "services" (including cheeses and cured meats—not including alcoholic drinks) the menu threatens to approach Cheesecake Factory proportions.
It doesn't make your decisions easier to know that much of the menu can be ordered toned-down, grilled simply with olive oil and lemon, leaving you with still more choices. And finally? The main menu doesn't separate out appetizers and entrees; dishes are listed from lightest to heaviest, color-coded to suggest portion, with drink pairings suggested alongside.
Equally confusing are the flavor combinations presented. The tone is loosely Mediterranean, lightly Greek, but wholly original. Braised cuttlefish with smoked mozzarella? Raw scallops with pistachio tartare and bone marrow?
Let's put it this way: on one visit, it took us nearly half an hour to decide on our order.
Still, once dishes started arriving, all that rigmarole was instantly forgotten. There's a lot to recommend on this menu.
One section of the menu is called "Appetizing Service," though really it's a choice of cured fish—five salmons (three smoked, one gravlax, one pastrami, $8-8.50), a cold-smoked sablefish ($9), and the Smoked Tuna ($7.50), which both our waiter and the menu described it as "a must try!" While the tuna itself was tender and rich with a very light smokiness, it was overshadowed by the excellent grilled bread and pickles.
The same bread was used to much better effect in the two crostini we tried, the Bacala & Skordalia Brandade "Melt," ($9) and the Tuna Confit & Baked Ricotta Bruschetta ($11). The latter is the stronger of the two. As with many dishes on the menu, it's confusing, in a good way: How could rich chunks of barely-cooked tuna, confit garlic, pickled pearl onions, baked ricotta, hot peppers, a salad of fried and fresh herbs, and a swoop of heavily garlic-flavored yogurt come together into a cohesive dish? Incredibly, they do.
Both crostini are large enough to make a light meal on their own, and coming in at nearly the same price as the cured fish offerings (and significantly more delicious), they left us wondering whether an entire section of the menu really needs to be devoted to serving cured fish that aren't even made in-house.
Almost as confusingly delicious as the tuna confit was the Smoked Octopus ($13), which pairs a tender, charred tentacle (Psilakis is really good with octopus) with spicy chorizo, charred hot peppers and broccoli, soft-cooked leeks and shallots, Japanese mushrooms, and, get this—mashed potatoes. Weird, right? Octopus and mashed potatoes might be the best flavor combination you haven't tried.
Other flavor experiments are not quite as successful, like the Lightly Smoked Potato & Yogurt Soup ($10)—a thin broth with little smoke flavor poured over a large bowl of mildly bitter greens, mushrooms, trout roe, and a few excellent bay scallops that would have been even more excellent on their own.
The Sea Urchin Crudo in Ocean Water ($14) comes served in a petri dish-shaped martini glass. The pleasantly firm and creamy urchin tastes not so much of the ocean as it does of fresh and briny tomato water, seasoned with plenty of black pepper and a heavy drizzle of excellent olive oil. It's intensely Meditarranean in spirit, if not in execution, and went well with the anise-flavored Worm-Wood Fire Ball ($12) cocktail. Like the food at Fish Tag, the drink combines an eclectic mix of ingredients—pineapple juice, star anise, elderflower cordial, and absinthe—in a manner that's confoundingly delicious.
Similarly, the Grilled Sturgeon (served as an appetizer, $17) brings together very Meditarranean flavors (grilled fish, salty roe, garlic, yogurt, and olive oil), in a novel way. The chunks of fish are grilled hard and fast, giving them an intense smokiness on the exterior while maintaining a soft center that's barely warmed. It's a technique more often seen in Japanese tataki-style dishes, but works well here.
Leaving hungry from Fish Tag will not be a problem. With six people dining, we had trouble finishing just four entrées. It's a smart move—the Upper West Side is notorious for customers who love complaining about skimpy servings.
We really liked the Sheep's Milk Dumplings ($19), which came served in a small bathtub-ful of rich fonduta. The creamy sauce, made with pureed sea urchin, crabs, Peruvian aji amarillo peppers, and an insane amount of butter is excellent with the tender gnocchi (very similar to the equally excellent sheep's milk gnocchi at Kefi), though not so successful with the bay scallops. As in the smoked potato soup, the mild sweetness of the scallops gets overwhelmed by the strong flavors in the dish.
Both grilled fish we tried—the Grilled Striped Bass ($23) and the Grilled Branzino Stuffed With Head Cheese ($26)—were cooked nearly perfectly—uniformly buttery and tender. The branzino's stuffing of cooked pig's head induced several looks of "Huh?," but there's no denying that the flavors and texture work together. Just as a Neapolitan pizza can inspire crust-centered debates, some would describe the skin on the striped bass as well-charred, while others would call it burnt.
Moving out into heavily North African-influenced Portuguese territory, the Bouchot Mussels & Spicy Lamb ($22) is another huge bowlful of well-cooked mussels swimming in a spiced broth laced with ginger (look out for the large chunks), saffron, pickled leeks, merguez, and a chickpea and lamb ragoût—another real head-scratcher that manages to work. Despite the visual appeal of a stack of mussels, this is first and foremost a lamb dish—the shellfish act as another spice for the broth, adding a metallic, briny complexity.
Seafood restaurants don't often have strong cheese programs, but Fish Tag's got at least 15 from all over the world. We'd have preferred to have seen composed 3, 5, or 7-piece platters instead of the a la carte pricing system they've chosen to employ. (A menu with a dozen different sections is already paralyzing enough. Please don't force us to choose from 15 cheeses as well!)
In the end we chose the one cooked-cheese dish on the menu, melted Young Pecorino "Saganaki" with a sweet-salty combination of honey, almonds, preserved lemon, and fried garlic. It was interesting, but not as memorable as other dishes—despite the heat of the cast iron skillet, the dry Pecorino quickly coagulated.
Perhaps the most confusing thing of all was the decision not to include "Dessert" as one of the dozen programs on their menu. Instead, they offer a few flavors of ice creams and sorbets from il laboratorio del gelato. While the reasons were explained to us—we offer cheese instead of dessert, the kitchen is too small to add a full dessert menu, we have sweet wines and gelati—we'd really like to have seen what this kitchen can do with true desserts—even if it meant seeing 6 to 10 items kicked off of the (already too long) menu. If they're even half as interesting or tasty as the savory food, we'd be impressed.
Though it's the complications that can trip up a meal at Fish Tag, it's complications that make it so exciting, too: novel combinations and improbably tasty head-scratchers that aren't just delicious, but memorable. Dishes you think back on days later. We wouldn't hesitate to recommend Fish Tag; we'd just recommend you'd go in with a game plan.