review: underwater kaleidoscope…
If I were to have twittered about my dinner at The John Dory in early May, I would have allotted my 140 letters thusly:
“Top product. Pricey. Bold. Pricey. Italy-on-Thames meets aquatic Antique Roadshow. Pricey. Easy service. Pricey. Great music. Pricey. Neon.”
Due to “storms in the New York area,” my 7:30 p.m. arrival was pushed shoved back to 9:15 p.m.
That’s not counting the 20 minutes I sat on the tarmac waiting for a “lead” to pull my plane 100 feet to the jetway. Nor is that taking into account the inexplicable 30-minute wait at the baggage carousel (why did I pack so much?). And, because every flight east of the Mississippi decided to arrive late at the same time, the taxi queue took another half-hour to crawl through.
Needless to say, I had blown my dinner reservation.
Thankfully, my two dining companions, the long-suffering Ms. Toidy Toid & Toid and Mr. RBI, who had already arrived at the restaurant, were able to cancel our reservation and returned home to wait for me. Two more generous and patient godparents I could not ask for, truly – the family that eats together, waits together.
Between the plane, airport, and taxi, the search commenced for a new dinner spot. Limited to late night dinner service, The John Dory jumped to mind. We called ahead and was assured that the wait, if any, wouldn’t be long.
None opposed, we rendezvoused and taxied over to the MePa.
With about a half-hour left before kitchen closing, we arrived nigh 11.00 p.m. Having generated quite the buzz, not surprisingly, the restaurant, which is wedged between Craft Steak and Del Posto, was full. True to the hostess’s word, we had a brief 15-minute wait at the bar – a magnificent and strange stretch of transparent acrylic encasing a school of sardines – before being seated.
This glowing neon light box is the Mediterranean seafaring sister to April Bloomfield’s hoofed landlubber gastropub, The Spotted Pig, in the West Village. The two menus could not be more different: here, there was only one non-seafood meat dish on the menu.
The restaurant is one part edgy and three parts quirky, yet very approachable. The interior is every bit as garish and wonderful as I had imagined. The long, narrow space is claustrophobically cluttered with maritime kitsch and kabobble. It’s over-lit (in both senses of the word). It’s under-lit (in both senses of the word). And hung mirrors, leaning at different angles, and a giant ocean aquarium behind the bar recreate a colorful, aquatic ether (code for: bad lighting = bad photographs).
The three of us – me being a two-stomached monster – cleared quite a few plates.
Here’s what we ordered. CLICK HERE to see the entire photo set, or click on the courses to view them individually.
Pan-Seared John Dory
Salsa verde and sprouting broccoli. ($28)
Char-Grilled Striped Bass
Marinated fennel and olives. ($30)
The food here is full of personality – but not too much (example: a rather pedestrian brunch menu is offered on the weekends). The menu is a strange collision of Mediterranean and British cuisines.
Chef-patron April Bloomfield’s pedigree is evident. Lemon, olive oil, and sea salt: The River Café’s (Hammersmith, not Brooklyn) holy trinity of seasonings – also constitute The John Dory’s holy trinity of seasonings. At The John Dory, these three ingredients appear ubiquitously, yet judiciously, leaning heavily on lemon. Spice (as in heat) is also deployed aggressively.
Actually, flavor, generally, is deployed aggressively, which is what I appreciated most about the food at the The John Dory. Though bland you will not find here, it’s also my biggest gripe. Many of the dishes were unbalanced – softer flavors were back-seated to (sometimes masked completely by) acid and heat.
Don’t eat here if you’re wanting subtlety, or if you’re shy about spice.
A basket with pumpernickel (with golden raisins and caraway) and (buttery) Parker House rolls came, as expected, along with a small cup of what I can only describe as Arctic char salad – flaked char mixed with crème fraîche and chives. Though it was quite good, passing off this little communal cup as an “amuse bouche” was rather silly.
The starters section of the menu was the priciest.
The “Ramps, Fried Egg, and Lardo” ($18) was my favorite of the lot. A generous amount of silky ramps, probably pickled and then grilled (there was acid somewhere in this dish, and I can’t imagine it came from any of the other ingredients), ringed a thick slab of grilled toast topped with a fried egg and translucent, melting sheets of lardo. I have to admit, it was a bit greasy (the grilled toast seemed like it had been pretty well-soaked with either butter or olive oil, or both), but very good.
The “Cod Crackling” ($20) was fun, but beyond the dressing, wasn’t terribly moving. This prawn cracker-meets-cod was dressed with tart, nose-clearing mustard seed vinaigrette. There seemed to have been chile flakes too, which gave everything an additional kick. While I liked the aggressive heat, it did blot out the flavor of the crackling. If the crackling tasted like cod, I couldn’t tell.
“Burrata” ($20) a special for the day, was simply drizzled with olive oil and topped with fresh trout roe. Both the mozzarella and the creamy burrata within were milky, and very fresh. The cheese was sided by a tuft of tartly dressed parsley and mint, that, sadly, completely obliterated the taste of the roe.
From the short list of ceviches (why not crudo?), Ms. Toidy Toid & Toid selected the “Fluke Ceviche” ($16). Five small strips of very fresh and surprisingly meaty fluke came dressed with a good slick of golden olive oil and lemon juice. The point of showing off very high-quality fresh fish was successfully accomplished.
The “Fennel and Celery Salad with Bottarga” ($16), upon first glance, looked more like a pile of parsley and celery leaves. Tucked beneath were fennel fronds and fennel and celery stalks, which seemed to have been strung. Everything was crunchy and fresh. The dressing, which was liberally applied, was bright with vinegary mustard. Sadly, the plate was light on bottarga; what little there was was overshadowed by the dressing. For bottarga-lovers like me, it was a bit disappointing.
The main courses were much more reasonably priced.
Two of them, the “Pan-Seared John Dory” ($28) and the “Char-Grilled Striped Bass” ($30) were excellent. Both fish were cooked well, with crispy skin.
The bass was, perhaps, my favorite dish of the evening. It was Mediterranea on a plate. The filet, sitting on a bed of softened fennel, sported a smoky, grill-charred coat. Bright flashes of preserved lemon, hot flashes of chile, and salty, meaty green olives gave this dish a dynamic and bold face.
The John Dory was easily the second-best dish of the evening. The filet came on a generous bed of tender broccoli sprouts ringed in with a flavorful salsa verde. I couldn’t find fault with any of it.
I was torn: grilled octopus or stuffed squid?
Our server said that the “Seared Squid Stuffed with Chorizo” ($28) was their most popular dish, which was perhaps clue number one that I probably shouldn’t have ordered it. But for the past three-plus years, I’ve secretly been hounding for stuffed squid that can outperform the lobster-stuffed chiperones I had at Carré des Feuillants.
Adding, as an afterthought, that the squid had a more robust flavor than the octopus dish, the server pushed me over the fence.
The three rather large squid caps were stuffed with something akin to paella, which included small dices of chorizo. Though the flavor was quite good (especially with the fresh cilantro), I didn’t care for the texture of the stuffing: the rice was too soft and mushy, whilst the chorizo was hard – it was like tomato-seafood mush studded with hard bits of chorizo (the chorizo was particularly unmemorable).
The squid was alright, if not a touch meatier than I had expected; these were not tiny baby squid. The white runner beans under the stuffed caps were unevenly cooked,. Some were fine; many, however, were undercooked and gritty. My quest continues.
Our side dishes were the most disappointing part of the meal. Like the starters, they were pricey.
For $8, I expect a whole lot of “Chips & Vinegar.” Or at least good chips and vinegar. Superficially, these thick-cut fries had it all: golden crust, heavily salted, and served with a small dish of malt vinegar. However, they either went stale very quickly, or they were not thoroughly cooked through. Some of the thicker wedges were mealy and grainy on the inside. The thinner, crispier pieces fared better.
And for $8, I expect more than 6 stalks of pencil asparagus.
I know that these “Asparagus” were from a noncommercial farm (with a name too long to remember or repeat) and that these stalks were very fresh, and no doubt organically grown. And, they were nicely grilled too: the char on the stalks imparted a wonderful, smoky flavor, punctuated by a bright hit of lemon and crunchy sea salt. But – I hate to nickel and dime – at $1.20 per stalk, this was a bit unreal.
The dessert menu arrived around midnight.
Ever the Anglophile, I took the “Eccles Cake with Stichleton” ($11) without batting a lash. It was wonderful. The pastry had excellent elasticity and a delicate, crisp surface (some Eccles pastries are too flaky for me, though they’re usually too dense), which glittered with demerara . The interior was a packed with dried currants perfumed with nutmeg. The bun came with a nice wedge of Stichleton cheese. Rich, salty, and blue-veined, it went perfectly with the dried fruit.
“John Dory Sundae” ($10) was also very good. Served in a mini martini glass, it was composed of (very) gingery ice cream topped with softened, caramelized slices of pineapple and crunchy bits of coconut. On the small side, this dessert demonstrated that flavor goes a long way. Each spoonful packed a punch. I wouldn’t have a problem polishing off this sundae by myself. But I can’t imagine wanting more.
The kitchen sent out the “Treacle Pudding for Two” ($20) on the house (*comp disclosure*).
“For Two” is not accurate. This epic-sized dessert was, realistically, big enough for four or five people.
Served piping HOT, already soaked with treacle, our server doused it with custard tableside.
The last time I visited this most British of British desserts was at St. John Bread & Wine. It was toothachingly sweet. This one was no different.
The John Dory’s version is much coarser (larger “holes” and heftier weight) than the one at St. John Bread & Wine, which was soft, and much finer. It wasn’t quite “stodgy,” but it was heavy.*
Though I’ve harped on the high prices, surely, I’ve accepted more outrageous restaurant pricing before (see my recent trip to Paris and the U.K.).
The freshness and quality of the ingredients used at The John Dory were clearly very high. In line with the m.o. at The River Cafe, I’m sure that only top crop makes it to the plate. Coupled with its location (trendy, scenester-infested, over-the-top, Las Vegas-type restaurant row), I concede that The John Dory is justified in charging what they do. Service was good – efficient, knowledgeable, and very friendly. The music was great. And, the food, overall, was solid.
I won’t be running back to The John Dory. But I’d surely consider it again – especially for a late-night tuck, and, if for nothing else, to try their touted Oyster Pan Roast (which I didn’t order this time), and Cod Milt (which wasn’t on the menu this time).
The John Dory
Chef-Proprietor April Bloomfield
85 Tenth Avenue (between 15th and 16th)
New York, New York 10011
* A group of young ladies (by that hour, the only other table in the house), who had just finished their meal, approached us near the end of our meal. Having seen the giant dome arrive at our table (it’s really hard to miss), they wanted to know what we thought of the treacle sponge. Expecting something closer to bread pudding, they disliked it. I guess Italy-on-the-Thames gets lost in translation near-the-Hudson. Or in the MePa, anyway.