Extremely Good Food at Mary's Fish Camp; Artisanal's Too Much
Back when I was a child, down at the fishing hole on a sultry summer day, my friends Skipper and Chucky and I used to cast our homemade lines into the black water, dangle our bare feet over the edge of the dock and sing a happy fishing song. "O friendly fishes, come and bite!" we'd warble in joyous harmony. "You'll be mommy's tasty dinner tonight! In creamy butter for her to cook! Scaly friends, come and bite our yummy hook!"
Those were the days; those pastoral summers. I was reminded of them when I ate dinner with a friend at Mary's Fish Camp, in the West Village, the other night. We're talking the heart of the West Village, specifically the corner of Charles and W. 4th Sts., one of New York's most charmingly atmospheric locations. Mary's is a tiny place, crammed full of no more than a dozen tables, with a curving metal bar at which you can also eat. The decor is simple: fish-house light blue and tiley white, and a painting of a big, dopey fish hangs on the wall. A couple light fixtures emit a flattering glow, soft music plays (an 80s mix tape made the Gen-X customers happy on the night we were there), windows throw themselves open so that you can feel the gorgeous breeze off the Hudson, and that's it.
All you need after that is food, which seems to be extremely good here. (The story is that this place spun off from Cornelia St.'s fine Pearl Oyster Bar. One of the Pearl's partners, who's apparently named Mary, bailed and started her own eatery.) We ordered tender fried oysters and clams; excellent new-potato salad; and New England clam chowder that was heavy on the cream, which is the way I like it, and that you could dredge with your spoon to pull up thick, salty bacon chunks.
We also ate a bouillabaisse, and roast cod served over a bed of the purest and most perfectly cooked mess of corn niblets and lima beans. Eating all this stuff while drinking Paulaner (there's also a wine list) on a hot summer night is intensely pleasant.
The wait for a table can be long?we sat for 45 minutes. But you're lolling on a bench on W. 4th St. with a beer in your hand and the trees are rustling along the block, so who's complaining? Bring $50 per mouth.
Mary's Fish Camp, 64 Charles St. (W. 4th St.), 646-486-2185.
It's been open for how long? Not long. But already, now in this torpid July, Artisanal exudes the aura of an institution, wallowing on 32nd. St. off Park Ave. like a smug whale lolling in warm shallows. The huge room amps up the European bistro ambience until it's overbearing, and your body feels 12 inches tall. Crowds spill in from the street, shoving their way in, away from the stunning heat. Big guys ease back in their polo shirts at the large, comfortable bar, breathing with their mouths open, trying to recover from the humidity, their corpulent hands glued to their beers. The banquettes, meanwhile, are too low, so you might feel even more powerless. My dining companion sat on her book.
The way to think about Artisanal is as a bad-vibe Balthazar. It's a lofty, high-powered and hyperreal bistro, but transposed out of the moody environs of Crosby St. and into that barren northern edge of the Park Ave. S. restaurant corridor, where the avenue inclines upward toward the severity and tunnels around Grand Central Terminal, and where few walk the streets. The space itself is the one in which you used to be able to find the overrated An American Place, if you were interested in paying a large amount of money for an arrogantly substandard dinner?and even given a redesign, Artisanal hasn't been able to completely expunge the drab atmosphere of that hustle that Larry Forgione used to call a restaurant. Diners chew, holler, nibble, gulp, leer, cackle and circulate in a huge, melancholy and tobacco-colored din.
The food's good, as it should be in a high-profile restaurant in New York City in 2001. We ordered carpaccio of tuna off the handsome oversized menu (so oversized it was burdensome; you couldn't lay it down when you were done looking at it). It was good and extremely fresh, but hard to fully enjoy, because the restaurant was uncomfortably loud and the help was harried and slow (if well-meaning), and it was becoming evident that the air conditioning was going to stay insufficient. I started to think that Artisanal's model was less Brasserie Lipp than the Gare de Lyon?and on a summer afternoon, when the place is crammed with a miserable, overheated bourgeoisie.
We also ordered shrimp and avocado, which was clever enough to transcend the frenzied circumstances (the maitre d' here could use a bullhorn to pierce the noise). This dish consisted of an avocado half that cradled a scoop of tomato-horseradish granite?that is, an ice, essentially a tomato sorbet, grainy with huge chunks of what seemed to be kosher salt. Atop the sorbet lay four big, enjoyable shrimp. So this dish and I agreed with each other; I thought it adequate, and I venture to say that it thought me so, as well; there was a satisfying emotional commerce between us.
What else? As entrees: grilled lamb chops, tasty as could be; and a fine Dover sole, served on a white platter with asparagus sprouts and crushed fingerling potatoes. And oh how I thrilled when, at tableside, the skillful server deboned the beast. The menu, as you might have figured out by now, is crammed with appealing bistro dishes. If I were ever to return to Artisanal, and the odds are against it, I might order the skate wing a la grenobloise, the roast cod, the steak frites, the seafood platter, the steak tartare, the escargots, the ribeye shmeared in bordelaise sauce or any one of a number of rotating daily specials, such as calves' brains, sweetbreads, coq au vin or duck a l'orange. It's nice that Artisanal serves this hoary last dish, by the way. Someone's still got to serve duck a l'orange; I'm not sure that even the old French bistros on Bistro Row do so anymore. Artisanal's menu also offers a number of fondues.
Which brings me to Artisanal's famous cheese selection, which is displayed in a special cheese window on the other side of the room, and that's maintained by cheese-wranglers who wear poker faces and clinical white smocks and potter around with their cheeses like chemists over their beakers. So seriously does Artisanal take its cheese that you're handed a yellow (that is, cheese-colored) newsletter about the stuff when you're seated. "What is Artisanal?" the newsletter reads. "As you probably know, the name comes from the revered art of lovingly crafting individual cheeses by hand rather than mass producing them in factories. Here, we look forward to proudly offering a more extensive selection of cheeses than any other restaurant in the United States."
Hey man, that's cool. The newsletter goes on to describe its "state-of-the-art" cheese cave, which maintains "the ideal temperature and humidity for each group of cheeses." And: "...[T]he cheeses rest on slatted beechwood shelves imported from Europe. The wood for these shelves was cut down from an older tree at the time of the month when the moon was ascending. Because the tide is at it's [sic] lowest then, there is less water in the wood. Then it is dried for at least one year. Also, wood harvested during this time has less sap circulating to the tree's exterior. This creates a more porous surface which aides in the aging process of the cheese."
I enjoyed the cheese-and-wine flight I ordered for dessert: three cow's milk cheeses, each accompanied by a different nice wine, including a muscat. But if you want to eat cheese in a hardcore way, visit Chanterelle, where they also take the stuff seriously, and where your total dining experience is roughly 150 times better. Artisanal's too much: the crowds, the hiphop beating incongruously out over the bar area, the way the sharp cat in the suit won't seat you until your whole party shows up even though your table's right there, in front of you, empty, longing for your presence.
It's not surprising, by the way, that Artisanal's a spin-off of Picholine. I never liked Picholine, either.
Artisanal, 2 Park Ave. (32nd St.), 725-8585.
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