The Best Bites at The Clam, Mike Price and Joey Campanaro's West Village Restaurant
420 Hudson Street (at Leroy; map); 212-242-8420; theclamnyc.com
Setting: Upscale but cozy.
Service: Friendly, casual, and attentive.
Compare To: The Little Owl, Pearl Oyster Bar
Must-Haves: Spaghetti & Clams, Steamed Littlenecks, Scallop Crudo
Cost: Appetizers $8 to $18, Mains $21 to $31
Recommendation: Good for the neighborhood, provided you order carefully.
There are plenty of things to love about The Clam, Mike Price and Joey Campanaro's new shellfish-centric seafood restaurant in the West Village. Though Campanaro—the man behind nearby The Little Owl—has a hand in The Clam, the restaurant is largely run by Chef Mike Price, who has a similar arrangement with Campanaro at Market Table, his New American restaurant a few blocks away. The Clam's aesthetic is the most refined of the three. Not as cramped or cozy as Little Owl, not as loud or rustic as Market Table, with more tablecloths than either.
The menu can be a little perplexing in both format (raw bar, appetizer, entrée, and "seasonal vegetables" sections, along with a large clam-based "House Specials" list that mixes both large and small format plates) and conceit (is this upscale seafood shack food, or is it New American market-driven? Can it be both?), but there are good bites to be had amidst the confusion.
Simple salads and thoughtful appetizers like Sliced Long Island Duck ($14), and a butter lettuce number with apples and cheddar cheese—the kind of stuff that makes The Little Owl's menu so appealing—are also quite good here. A Scallop Crudo ($15) with pear and hazelnuts seems thematically out of place between stuffed cherrystones and clam dip, it's one of the most subtle and refreshing bites on the menu.
Campechana Coctel de Camaron takes its cues from Mexico with a tart, ketchupy concoction with plenty of tender shrimp and chunks of avocado. I'm not sure why the raw bar offerings all come with a tiny butter cup filled with raw vegetables, but they do make for good table conversation, I suppose.
On the clam front, that Clam Dip ($9), served with thick and crunchy house-fried potato chips is about as good as clam dip can be (that is, moderately good), but the Steamed Littlenecks ($14) with chunks of garlicky bread and plenty of buttery, wine-fortified broth are the best way to go. Save the bread for broth-dipping if you'd like, or just order a couple extra Parker House rolls, served hot, sweet, yeasty, and buttery with big flakes of sea salt on top.
The house-made Spaghetti & Clams ($21) is one of the finest red sauce-based clam spaghettis I've tasted. (Though I wish they'd serve the slowly wilting salad perched on top of it on the side.)
In fact, general advice: if it looks like it'd be at home on the Market Table or Little Owl menu, it'll probably be great. Riffs on East Coast seafood classics get a little muddled.
My wife has a deep and abiding love for Crab Cakes ($31), but we both had trouble getting behind The Clam's. There's plenty of fresh, chunky crab in there, but they're buttery to the point of being heavy, a problem not helped by a cayenne-butter sauce that adds more richness. A slaw made with gorgeously ribboned vegetables was pretty, but lacked the crisp bright contrast that a more standard slaw would have provided. It's times like these I wish I carried lemon wedges around with me.
Some other questions: Does a perfectly good Fried Belly Clam Sandwich ($24) need chunks of lobster in its remoulade? Not when you can't even taste that they're there. I'd rather have a few bucks knocked off the price and go with a plain tartar sauce. Does Clam Chowder ($12) taste better when it's served with on-the-half-shell littlenecks that you have to pluck out of their shells before you can dig in? I'd take the $8 bowl made the right way with chopped quahogs at Littleneck any day.
These are details that pay more service to looking pretty on the plate or on the menu than actually improving upon the original, all while bumping up already high price tags.
For its few trip-ups in food and a menu that begs for a bit more focus and personality, it still occupies the upscale seafood niche in the oyster-bar happy West Village, and their clam-centric menu is a nice change from the oyster, lobster, and fried fish you'll find at nearby Mermaid Oyster Bar, Pearl Oyster Bar, or Mary's Fish Camp. For this alone, it's a restaurant that should earn any clam-lover's reservation on a night out—provided you know what to order.