Small Space, Small Plates, Big Flavors at Peix, Bar de Mariscos
Peix Bar De Mariscos
151 Elizabeth Street, New York, NY 10012 (b/n Broome and Delancey; map); 212-219-0599; peixnyc.com
Service: Not 100% knowledgeable about the menu but friendly.
Setting: Small, open, and noisy.
Must-Haves: Croquetas de Bacalao, Sautéed Prawns, Pulpo a la Gallega.
Cost: Small plates are $8 to $13, mains are $22 to $25.
Rating: Recommended with reservations.
The Spanish menu created by Mexican chef-consultant Ignacio Carballido (Cafe El Portal and Casa Mezcal) at Peix Bar de Mariscos is simple to the extreme—most dishes are nothing more than pristine seafood, a bit of olive oil, and some good technique—but compelling. It's easy to respect a chef who has the sense to let the ingredients do most of the work for him, letting their own creativity ride in the passenger seat.
Given its tiny space tucked into the old Xicala wine bar space on Elizabeth street between a laundromat and across from what may be Chinatown's oldest and dirtiest garage, it's an easy restaurant to miss, but it's worth the walk, especially on a warm weeknight when storefront windows are open and the bar is pouring refreshing glasses of their Spanish rosé.
A joint project between Carballido and manager Paula Ginestar-Campanaro (ex-wife of Little Owl and Market Table's Joey Campanaro), the menu is as small and simple as the space.
As is usual at small plates restaurants, the tapas ($8 each) and appetizers ($9 to $13) are the strongest part of the menu and have very few weak spots. Good thing too, as they make up over 75% of your options. This makes ordering pretty easy—just fill your table with a grab bag of whatever sounds good to you—it's all tasty.
Their fried dishes are universally good. Croquetas de bacalao ($8) are a fine example of the classic spanish dish. Theirs are crisply breaded in panko with a moist, creamy interior that really tastes of salt cod, the way they should. Fried calamari ($10) is as grease-free and tender as can be with a creamy romesco alli-oli for dipping. This stuff isn't going to blow your mind with creativity or ingenuity, but sometimes good, simple food and a cold beer is what you want on a warm weeknight.
The menu has a couple of fun nods to American cuisine as well. Baked clams ($8) are not-too-bready and have a nice briny tenderness. Eat them hot because the breading tends to get a little soft after they begin to cool. Now is not the time to be polite, get 'em before your friends do!
A trio of tiny lobster rolls ($13) come served in party-sized Martin's potato roll buns. They would have been tastier if they had been properly toasted with a bit more butter like a true lobster roll bun, but the lobster salad was generous and nicely seasoned, bound with just enough mayonnaise to hold it together.
Caesar salad ($9) also makes an appearance. Theirs is made with perfectly crisp and bright baby romaine in an umami-forward dressing, topped with a few pickled white anchovies.
Mussels ($11) are served in a garlicky broth with a few pieces of grilled bread. The broth is mild, letting the flavor of the mussels come through.
Another equally simple and delicious dish, the pulpo a la gallega ($8) is just tender enough to be pleasant while still maintaining enough chewiness to let you really know that it's octopus and comes simply dressed with some parsley, some paprika, and plenty of really good olive oil.
That olive oil plays another big role in the sautéed prawns ($12), easily my favorite appetizer over the course of three meals at the restaurant. Big, plump, crunchy, and packed with intensely briny shrimp flavor, these are the kind of dish that reminds you what shrimp is really supposed to taste like. The sautéed shrimp come dressed in a garlicky white wine and lemon sauce with lots of olive oil.
The four entrées on the menu are respectable enough, but are unexciting after the intense and varied flavors you get from a spread of tapas and appetizers. The best part of the zarzuela ($25) is the crisp-on-the-outside, creamy in the middle paella-style rice cake with fava beans. The seafood—a mix of mussels, shrimp, baby octopus, and salmon in a paprika-spiked broth—is a little muddy. You're much better off ordering the mussels, sautéed prawns, and octopus off of the appetizer menu. More seafood, cleaner flavors, and $1 less in total price.
I liked my Broiled Cod just fine once I got past the browned mayonnaise-y coating on top of it. The fish is fresh, tender, and flaky, and the corn and peas it comes served on top of make you wish that there were even more vegetables on the menu.
The biggest disappointment came at the end of the meal. Strawberry panna cotta ($8), advertised as the favorite of co-owner Paula Ginestar-Campanaro looks like something left behind by an albino cow with its lumpy texture, but to their credit, the owner kindly discounted it from our bill when they saw that we ate only a couple of bites. The Peach Tartine ($7) is a better option, though it's still not much more than some sliced peaches placed on a square of pre-fab puff pastry with a scoop of ice cream.
Still, with such a cute space, friendly service, and food that is both reasonably priced and well executed, it's easy enough to overlook the state of desserts when other parts of the meal pay off.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.