Cull & Pistol Nails the Classics and Creates Some New Ones
Cull & Pistol
75 9th Avenue (In Chelsea Market; map); 646-568-1223; cullandpistol.com
Setting: High end but casual New England-style oyster bar
Must-Haves: Oyster & Leek Soup, Uni Tagliatelle, Hamachi Collar
Service: Well-informed, a little harried, but friendly
Compare To: The John Dory Oyster Bar, Mary's Fish Camp
Even if Cull & Pistol, the new sister restaurant to the 40-year old Lobster Place in Chelsea Market, served nothing but the sandwiches that Lobster Place introduced to their menu after some renovations in May, it would have been a spot worth hitting for lunch if you were passing by on the High Line. But Cull & Pistol, a New England-style seafood shack of sorts, goes far beyond that, offering some of the city's most solid renditions of classic coastal fare, along with a few surprises on the menu by Chef Dave Seigal. It's oddly named after maimed lobsters—a cull is a lobster that's lost a claw, while a pistol is a completely claw-less lobster—but don't let that stop you from going.
The space is as long and narrow as a proper oyster bar should be, accented with wood and a few Maine-inspired fittings—caged light bulbs, driftwood-colored blackboards, and the like. On any given night, you'll have a choice of a dozen or so raw bar offerings picked off sashimi-style from a white card in which you check off how many of each you'd like for the table. They range from sweet and tender Jonah Crab Claws from Maine for a couple of bucks a piece to half lobsters for $13 and oysters from both coasts priced very reasonably between $2 and $2.50 a pop.
We went with a few plump and briny Wellfleets from Cape Cod, some Beau Soleil from New Brunswick, and a few buttery Littleneck Clams from Maine ($1 each!). They come served with a mildly hot and plenty tangy cocktail sauce and a peppery mignonette, along with a spiced mayonnaise for the crab claws that could have used just a touch more spice.
There's no liquor license at Cull & Pistol, but there are plenty of wines by the glass ($9 to $15) and beers ($7 each) to choose from, along with two beer-based cocktails: A classic michelada made with clam juice and old bay, and the Gator Beer 2.0, which sounds like it'll be too sweet with its pilsner and lemon soda base and lemon drop-esque sugared rim, but actually comes out more refreshing. It's what I'd choose to wash down my raw bar platter.
There's no clam chowder on the menu here, which is fine by me if it means that there's room for their Oyster & Leek Soup ($10), a creamy concoction that's buttery-smooth with the rich savoriness of cooked oysters combined with just enough potatoes to lend it some body. It comes sprinkled with dill croutons and fancy Spanish chili.
There's "Long Island Clam Toast" ($13) proudly listed under the appetizers here as if it's some sort of transplanted regional specialty, though frankly, I've never heard of the dish (and neither has Google). No matter. Deeply charred bread from market neighbor Amy's with a thick smear of softened butter topped with whole clams, onions, herbs, and some bacon from Dickson's Smoked Meats (also a couple doors down) would be just as delicious even if it were called Siberian Clam Toast. It has the same satisfying chewiness and smoked pork-and-clam flavor duo that my mom's clam spaghetti had in the 80's (and perhaps your mom's too).
Our group of three diners was a little miffed that the Deviled Eggs ($9) came in three different flavors. All of us wanted to try the salmon, crab, and lobster-caviar versions. We ended up splitting them, cutting the eggs to reveal the little pockets of dressed seafood underneath their piped-egg caps.
You won't see Uni Tagliatelle in a Maine seafood shack, and it might not be the greatest sea urchin pasta dish in the city (that honor goes to either the version at Esca or at Marea), but it has an advantage over those: the ability to order half portions. For $15 you get a sizable tangle of squid ink noodles coated in a creamy sea urchin emulsion along with crunchy bread crumbs and roasted tomatoes. $21 will get you a full-sized entree portion. The sauce could have been a bit more saucy and the tomatoes didn't bring much to the table, but the tiny grilled squid perched on top won the award for most surprisingly tasty bite of the night with their tender smokiness.
I used to work at a restaurant where two lucky customers per night would get to order the collars off the hamachi that we butchered daily—like chickens with their wings, each fish has only got two. That's one of the the advantage Cull & Pistol has, being the sister restaurant to a sushi joint: They can stick the specialty cut on the menu and serve it all night long. If you've never had Hamachi Collar ($24), this is a good place to get your first dose of the incredibly succulent, tender, mildly flavored meat. A sweetened miso glaze coats flesh that melts on your tongue like the finest toro, while a thin ponzu-style broth adds a touch of acidity to the mix. The only improvement I'd have looked for is for some crisp skin to go with it, but we can't always get everything we want.
The Fish & Chips ($17, one of my seafood shack benchmarks) has a batter that's slightly thinner and darker than I like mine, causing the very edges of the hake inside to begin to toughen, but the Maine Lobster Roll ($25) is as fine a rendition of the dish as you could hope for. It's done in true New England style with just enough mayonnaise to barely bind it together, a sprinkle of scallions, and a buttery toasted top-split hot dog roll. The roll might be a little small for the price tag, but a big pile of perfect fries will fill you up nicely.
Everyone seems to mention the Fish Tacos ($18), and they really are excellent. Seasoned hunks of tender grouper piled high with shredded red cabbage and served with lime and spicy mayo in homemade charred corn tortillas. The tortillas could be a little more tender, but they're a big step up from most you'll find in New York.
There's no dessert menu at Cull & Pistol, but nobody leaves without a little thimble-ful of orange creamsicle gelato custom-made for the restaurant by L'Arte del Geltao.
I'm a big stickler for properly cooked, ultra-fresh seafood at oyster bars like this, to the point where even the tiniest thing out of place can bring down the experience for me. At Cull & Pistol, they hit all of the classics just right, and even create new dishes that seem like they've existed forever. Are there really seafood shacks serving clams and bacon on toast out on the beach in Montauk? Not that I know of, but maybe there should be.
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.