105 Reade St., Tribeca, NYC
Review by Diana, MaceVindaloo
We were following the recommendation of the resident Hut foodie, who knew the executive chef of this place, a beautiful blue-eyed man named Daniel Angerer. She told me he's divorced now, and his ex-wife's choice of stylish chefwear has given way to and all-black uniform. And she told me he looks very much like Anakin Skywalker at 36, if he hadn't fallen into the lava pit! She didn't tell me this purveyor and cooker of fish and seafood was Austrian; I would have thought twice about coming here if I'd known the chef was from a land-locked country, believing as I do that your formative years will determine many things later in life. And having suffered a less than stellar seafood meal at City Crab earlier in the week, and having had a miserable week both professionally and personally, I didn't feel strong enough for more disapppointment. But the fellow accompanying me wanted to try this place; he pointed out that the recommendations of our 'Hut foodie are never wrong.
From the street, this place is unassuming and hidden away on the very old Reade Street in the "triangle below canal" (thus, "Tribeca"), between Church Street and West Broadway. The only indication that it is a restaurant is a rather forlorn table set in front, with the menu and tasting menu held down by beach-eroded rocks; otherwise, you'd miss it passing by. The space was likely a former gallery, and probably a factory of some sort before that. The decor is modern and austere, but perhaps the blue lighting makes it seem like maybe a Scandinavian ice-cave by the seaside? There are two subtle and pervasive smells in the big room when you walk in. One is the subtle smell of fresh fish not at all "fishy" in the bad sense, but not like "cucumbers" which is another popular way of describing the odor of fresh fish. It's the smell of the fish flesh as it comes to room temperature ... the other smell is of hiacynths and lilies very grassy, spring-like smells. Some of us remember this as the smell of cottages on the beach, imagined and real ...
One sour point the waiter was inadequate, but we found out later that for the big room, there were but three waiters, one runner, and two busboys. The others called in sick with stomach virus, and it was decided that anyone with a contagious gastrointestinal disease should not be allowed within the door of the place. So they crossed their fingers and made do with those who could make it in. The busboys were good at their jobs, but didn't really speak English, which made for interesting mix-ups when making requests.
The hostess was very nice and gave us a nice table by the window at the front of the restaurant, right under the flowerboxes. It was freezing outside, but this table felt like springtime. We quickly made up our minds about what we'd be eating: the tasting menus, which had two choices for each of five courses. Since there were two of us, we'd get to try the whole menu. But we also decided to start with a couple of things that, in our minds, could make or break a seafood restaurant: Ipswich clams and crabcakes.
We'd complained previously in another review that it seems in order to get the best seafood, one needs to find a shack. The two items that come to mind are Ipswich clams, which are fried clams with bellies intact (the previous champion for this dish is Bigelow's) they are a hot, crunchy, chewy, sweet, succulent thing, served artfully in a Chinese take-out box; and crabcakes, which in many places tend to be overdone and sticky instead of sweet, tender and only lightly fried. Most places do these two things abysmally or "just okay." So we ordered these before our tasting menu, knowing that it could color the whole evening ...
Quel ...! These dishes were perfect, really sublime and served very simply. The chef enhances the seafood with things such as a herb salad (parsley, chervil, watercress), or maybe with nothing but a mayonnaise dip (the classical accompaniment to fried clams in the classical clam roll served in a toasted hotdog bun!). The portions are adequate for sharing, and we did share, wanting the other person to know how wonderful the food we were eating was! The crabcakes are wide and flat, so that they cook through and keep their texture and flavor, and not suffer from that stickiness that we both hate so much. And the panfried crust was not forced to get thick and inpenetrable and overly brown to heat through and cook the center. An obvious thing, but Angerer actually executes it, and does it extremely well.
The meal actually started with what is these days called "amuse-bouches" or little titbits that chef sends out to whet the appetite and heighten the anticipation of the meal. Angerer's titbits were a smoked trout pàté on tiny toast points and big-eye tuna tartare wrapped in cucumber they were tiny, but their flavor was big and it gave us a lot of good vibes for the rest of the meal. The bread was doled out by the busboy as your breadplate emptied, and empty it did, especially with a fragrant olive oil and butter pool to spread and dip with. We hadn't seen this treatment of "bread emollient-lubricants" before and it's a winner!
The tasting menu was wonderful the ingredients were indeed the center of the presentation, but they were in no way contrived or too precious. They are more delicious for what Angerer does to them for instance, one of us loves scallops in any mode, the other doesn't. The smoked scallops appealed to both of us, and the chef's decision to slice them horizontally meant the "bite" or texture was not going to be too chewy and it looked like a scallop, rather than a weird brown aductor muscle. It was delicious, as was the grilled baby octopus and pickled salad! The former is a now-classical French treatment of northeast American fishes, the latter was blatantly Greek in origin, but both were so much better than the originals. And yet this was the essence of "scallop" and "octopus." It was almost a zen moment, but not in the austere sense. One of us describes this fare as "decadent zen."
All the selections were delicious. Fish that was cooked very rare was sliced thinly so it wasn't weird to cut or put in your mouth. Sauces we dabbed onto plates or served in a separate pitcher. Soups were frothy and flavorful and accompanied by a clam role or toast with cheese. And 'oyster stew" was served on the concave shell half meaning the shucker knew the difference! And the filo-topped shrimp was like tempura without being the same old same old ... it was better, actually. This food was what you WANT seafood to be and it was everything you wish you grew up with!
The wine selections, which you can add to the tasting menu for an extra $27, suited the meal very well. There were three wines, brought out with every other course: a Riesling, a Dolcetta, and an Icewein for dessert. Desserts by the pastry chef a soft, flowing lemon custard tarte with tangerine sorbet and a cr&egrame brulé-centered chocolate Sachertorte type cake with vanilla pod ice cream were creative and delicious, but was out-done by the chef's "gift" with the check a pear sorbet scooped into a homemade tuile cone! It was meltingly perfect, the flavor of the pear sorbet was intense and satisfying, and the soft crispness of the thin cookie was delectable. The icewein went with all three desserts perfectly and really makes us interested in buying dessert wines for our homes. The coffee was dark, strong, and rich (like the perfect date!) and a perfect meal-ending beverage.
All up, the bill was $250 including taxes and tip for two. This may seem pricy but this was an important occasion for us, even though it may not have been the occasion people think. We'd be willing to declare a 'stress holiday' once a month for this place; we'd be willing to forego the seafood shacks of our youths and our dreams for here! The appetizers were $17 apiece for superlative examples of Ipswich clams and crab cakes; to be fair, the authentic shacks charge a lot for these items, too. The savings from the shacks comes from the fact that they usually don't have seats, use cheap paper plates and styrofoam containers, no service, and not enough napkins or bathrooms ... how does that compare to good service (though it was a bit slow due to the staff shortage tonight), nice tables, beautiful setting, silverware, Villeroy and Boch plates, chef's gifts, really nice bathrooms ... no contest!
I guess it's up to every person to decide their price / reward point. If you must have spectacle and superlative fare with no risk, and have access to an expense account, Le Bernardin is the place for you. If you prefer no ambiance, no extra frills, and seafood cooked in one of a few traditional manners, then a seafood shack like Bigelow's is more your speed (though beware that every place with excellent seafood will pay top dollar for the materials, so it might not cost significantly less than any other place). If you are feeling ambiguous or are with people who are scared of seafood or are simply taste-blind and want comfy surroundings with a big choice of fare, a place like City Crab is more your speed. For us, we are willing to pay more for creativity, intelligent cooking, nice atmosphere, superior supply, but not so much that it becomes a question of "am I getting my money's worth?" For us, fresh. (as in "fresh, period" or "the first name for fish") is the place we will crave. (Thank god we live in a place with ready access too all of these styles and price-points!)
And it was the PERFECT way to decompress from a bad week, and the seafood did NOT disappoint in the least. It's wonderful to know there is a place that is exactly as you want it to be, but better! (As we left, the hostess gave us cellophane-wrapped muffins "for breakfast, a gift from the pastry chef." That's so nice!)
By the way, we confirm that chef Daniel Angerer really is beautiful, young (ohmygosh, he's really 36, we asked him!), recently divorced, and does look like Anakin Skywalker ... he also has a surprisingly reedy voice and funny accent, and it adds to his charm. You can watch him cook through the glass wall at the back of the restaurant. His business partner, Eric Tevrow, not only has opened three restaurants in the downtown Manhattan area, but owns a fleet of 25 line-fishing boats that fly the waters of the North Atlantic for the best seafood. To make this venture profitable, they sell seafood to every 4-star restaurant in Manhattan, and to several 3- and 2-stars too. Both Angerer and Tevrow came around to talk to us (they must've noticed us taking photos of the food ...) and told us that seafood does not go to the people closest to the ocean ... it goes to the people willing to pay for it. Thus their decision to own the fleet, as it were. It makes a difference, for sure it's not nearly as expensive as one would think. And Angerer, being owner of a fishing fleet and having to publicize his wares as well as being a chef, highlights the seafood. In fact, in a table behind us, Tevrow was talking to fish customers and feeding them dinner, so they could judge the quality of Early Morning Seafood, the name of their fleet products and services. (We don't know when Tevrow sleeps! He looks really tired but was as nice as can be.)
We love this place, we love that the menu doesn't offer "alternatives" for people who aren't into fish (they have surf and turfs like "duck and shrimp" or "filet mignon tips and scallops" different and very good, again to complement the seafood, not the "meat"). Wait, there was one thing on the tasting menu which had no fish in it the garlic and spinach soup with goat-cheese crostini, but it certainly suits the seafood around it. It was also sublime in and of itself a rare trick for any chef to be able to pull off.
Though this looks like a very fashionable cave, it has the soul of the elusive seafood shack of our dreams. It's our kind of place, and we'll be back! And Eric Tevrow told us that his other two places are more "shore-shack-like": Coast and Shore, further west from here. Stay tuned for reviews of those places, too!
Never doubt the recommendations of the resident 'Hut Foodie-Queen. And a perfect antidote to any darkness on your mood or your soul. Does that make this place holy, too??
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