Fisheaters and Fish Restaurants
Watching the Pope quiver and shuffle his way through the Holy Land recently, I was reminded?as I always am during one of these hoopla-saturated ministerings to the worldwide flock by St. Peter's heir?of my Catholic lineage. I fell from grace a while back, and for the most part I veil whatever allegiance I still maintain to organized faith behind a general skepticism, but the truth is that I was raised not just Catholic, but hardass Catholic. Until I was about 10, I attended (was compelled to attend, actually) Mass six days a week. Six! That, folks, is extreme. It was a consequence of being educated in the Catholic schools: I and my blue-uniformed fellows and plaid-skirted sisters would be trundled off the bus and straight into church, there to have our metaphysical adolescent needs tended for a ritual hour before ever cracking a book or being tyrannized by a nun. (And how's this? If during the day a priest entered our classroom, we were all required, on threat of corporal punishment, to stand in unison and issue a greeting. Creepy? Yeah, sort of creepy.)
But then the Holy See pops up on the tube and Lent rolls around and before you know it, you're slip-sliding back toward the familiar. Unconsciously reverting to the training.
And what exactly am I preparing to talk about here? Fish. I don't know, maybe it's just a springtime deal, maybe it has nothing to with the way all that Catholic doctrine was braided into my DNA, maybe I'm just in a mood for oceans and blueness and beaches and boats and seascapes and salt air and sweet sunlight on the smooth sand. Who knows, really. Then again, maybe there is a deeper issue, an unanswered question, here lurking in the otherwise untroubled matrix of my mortal heretic's potentially hell-bound soul.
This is how it worked for me when I was a kid, being raised according to RC rules in a house decked out with crucifixes and palm fronds and cherished Bibles and occasional discussions of the Baby Jesus and the dedicated Apostles and whether the Rosary was a sacred strand of vital beadwork or a disturbing indulgence of the Cult of the Virgin: We ate a buttload of fish, especially during Lent, when my family didn't eat meat on Fridays. (Jesus had a thing for fishermen, and his sermonic sleight of hand with fish was, well, miraculous.) We would have eaten a buttload of fish in any case; my parents were, shall we say, huge on fish. Fish didn't trouble my brother or me. We took it for granted, not exactly looking forward to it, but not turning our noses up at it, either. My brother and I enjoyed most food. We weren't picky. As I recall, we ate fish once or twice a week year-round. Steak on Sunday. But otherwise, plenty of fish. To borrow the pejorative for Catholics, that's what we were: fisheaters.
Call it a flashback, but I've been absolutely inhaling the fruits of the sea lately. A seasonal affliction, perhaps, as I've already suggested, but then again, possibly something deeper. A worship substitute. Clams and shrimp and tuna and mackerel and trout and (unavoidably) sea bass and snapper and swordfish and flounder and glistening sardines and wee anchovies (got a little sick off one of those) and chewy octopus and ceviches and squid cooked various ways and lobsters and crabs (The softshells are coming!) and even, blissfully, not too long ago, baby eels. I should be gearing up for my annual sashimi blowout any day now. (I like to limit my exposure to Japanese cuisine to a yearly quartet of trips to sushi bars complemented by a single, very deliberate and terrifyingly expensive sojourn to one of those hardcore places where...well, where deliberation and terrifying expense are part of the fun, the thrill.) I'll be 33 in about a week, which means that it's time to hit the Oyster Bar for my celebratory dozen raw bivalves. Bizarre primordial sick-looking finned-and-scaly beasts, or else the fundamental forms of life armored by exoskeletons, sealed in secreted encasements, surrounded by protective shells. All yanked from the sloshing maternal sea, that context in which our distant evolutionary ancestors once wriggled, until they got wise, grew brains and feet and whatnot, and?just like me with the Roman Catholic Church?crawled free, fled the reassuring amniotic saline of the globe's vast ponds and placed a Darwinian bet on dry, dangerous land.
So, fish. I have delighted in at least three notable fish-, or watery fauna-, eating experiences over the past few weeks. I'll start with those baby eels, or "glass eels" as they're also known, which were tossed in with linguine fini, some parsley, bread crumbs, garlic and olive oil at Babbo. I ate this astonishingly simple but fulsomely pleasurable and perfect-for-springtime dish at the bar. (The eating-at-the-bar scene at Babbo is, I'm here to tell you, quite a scene, so go early.) It was a special, so if the sound of it piques your interest, better get on over there before they run out of infant eels. Honestly, though, a cool pasta dish: each baby eel a tender inch of blanched flesh (almost, dare I say, parasitic-looking, delicate, ethereal, barely there, but also weird, eelily grotesque in the proper manner of eels, and I'm not sure I want to know how these tiny things are harvested). The squirming dimensions pair nicely, match exactly, the circumference of the noodle. And these are great noodles?Babbo is one of the few Italian restaurants where it's worth paying $22 for a pasta special. Terrific crunch supplied by the carefully browned bread crumbs. Thin slivers of garlic, merging. I wolfed it down. I was tempted to lick the bowl. I wanted seconds.
Elsewhere, matters were more conventionally fishy. Fish is the story at Smith St. Kitchen, yet another of the newish establishments that have transformed Boerum Hill into the city's current culinary mecca for moderately luxurious dining. Among my favorite rooms on the strip, this one. Uncharacteristically (my ichthyological karma is usually superb), I ordered the wrong kind of fish on my visit, a merely so-so sauteed grouper, crusted in potatoes and surrounded by a bouillabaisse broth ($18). The fish, rather than retaining its integrity, disintegrated into the broth as I ate it, which might have been the idea, probably was in fact, but it didn't work well for me. Fortunately, my companion made a better call, choosing grilled arctic char ($16), an increasingly ubiquitous item on menus around town these days. Hers rocked, though, evincing none of the flabby blubberiness I've come to associate with this salmon variation. Instead, the thick and fatty skin had been beautifully crisped by the grill's heat, and alongside was a nice lumpy bean-and-vegetable concoction.
It was dumbassed of us to order a la carte. We should have split a whole fish special, and if you take my advice and duck into the Smith St. Kitchen's elegant, subdued confines (the chief decorative feature is the gorgeously tooled, pewter-like pressed tin that lines the restaurant's walls and ceiling and converses sumptuously with the simple furnishings and tremolo candlelight), that's what you'll do. And if you want a wine recommendation that isn't white (I don't feel that it's quite warm enough for whites yet), but still companions fish well and doesn't cost a lot, try the '98 Echelon pinot noir ($26), off a very well-curated list, and one of the best-smelling California pinots I've stumbled across in recent months. Tastes good, too.
All right, so the Brooklyn hump isn't for everyone. So you can also amble over to Philip Marie in the West Village and order the whole farm-raised, fennel-stuffed Pennsylvania striped bass, with garlic-basil mashed potatoes. I love the way they prepare this fish, grilling it and maintaining the almost pornographic paleness of the flesh?texturally alluring, paradoxically firm yet meltingly faint?while keeping the seasoning (salt, essentially) outside on the crisp silver-blue skin. Absolutely scrumptious, and enough food for a pair, if you and your fellow diner share a couple of appetizers. And really, go with the fish, and unless there are four of you, avoid the Jack Daniel's-marinated lamb shank, which is by and large fine, but also massive, and massively surrounded by too much other stuff: saffron rice and country ham and...? it's overwhelming.
I like Philip Marie okay?it's a quiet, fairly dignified little American-casual restaurant in a neighborhood that's often dispiriting, filled with poorly groomed expatriates, and it has a nice bar?but I have a complaint: if they're going to put a fizzy, rotgut Italian sangiovese like Ruffino's '98 Fonte al Sole on the list, then they shouldn't charge a profiteering $26 for a bottle. The stuff goes for eight dollars in the stores. I found a new California sangiovese from the jug-bottler Corbett Canyon, at a Kroger in West Virginia, for four dollars, and it was infinitely better. Put that one on. Be patriotic.
Fish, man. It gets worse. I'm looking at my fly rod right now. I'm flipping through the Orvis catalog. The ice is melting. The brooks are running chill and swift. Won't be too long before I'll be gearing up to catch my own.
Have to let those go, however: catch-and-release. Can't ethically fry 'em up. Thank God, then, for restaurants that treat fish as an article of faith. As prayers that swim.
Babbo, 110 Waverly Pl. (between MacDougal St. & 6th Ave.), 777-0303.
Smith St. Kitchen, 147 Smith St. (between Warren & Wyckoff Sts.), Brooklyn, 718-858-5359.
Philip Marie, 569 Hudson St. (11th St.), 242-6200.
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