21 West 17th Street (b/w 5th & 6th)
City: New York, NY
Phone: (212) 691-8888
Site: Visit the restaurant site
Area: Flatiron District
Entree Price: $20-25
Don't you just hate people with a lot of talent? People, for instance, like Laurent Tourondel. I mean, first he wowed me at Cello (serious serenity and amazing waves of fish), then he opens BLT Steak and has me considering slabs of beef, onion rings, and creamed spinach for breakfast, and now he's gone back to the sea with BLT Fish. (And I loved his book, GO FISH, recently out from Wiley with co-author Andrew Friedman). Okay, so I guess I like the guy, and I was very fired up to check out his latest restaurant, BLT Fish, located in the old AZ space.
We found a restaurant like something out of a movie set for Gidget or Blue Crush—the place has been completely transformed into a cheery cottage-style, Oceanside fish shack, with worn wide-planked floors, wainscoted walls hung with giant shellacked swordfish, nautical maps and black and whites of fisherman, blue and white awning striped banquettes, and solid wood tables dressed with kitschy paper lobster placemats and caddies filled with old bay seasoning, hot sauce, and assorted necessary shack condiments. The place was a buzz—the bar was three deep, crowded with a happy mix of dolled up babes and their coiffed boyfriends, and teams of men and woman staked out in their respective corners of the bar, glancing at each other, and then turning away, like the teenagers we all really are inside.
Snaking their way through the shyly flirting masses were fresh-faced waitresses in pigtails, and waiters in GO FISH tees, who all had the glow of kids on summer break. As they navigated the crowds, carrying oversized trays piled high with plastic baskets overstuffed with fries, slaw and lobster rolls, red and white gingham paper cones packed with assorted fried critters of the sea (clams, incredible calamari with a killer curry mayo), and massive three-tiered shellfish platters, they looked like carefree teenagers who might have their surf boards outside leaning against the shack in the sand, and parents somewhere a bike ride away, waiting for them to come home.
That's the way it is at BLT Fish. The place has this air of sea-salted innocence to it. Indeed, once you enter, you are no longer a jaded New Yorker dining on a dark stretch of 17th Street. You are in your twenties, and just coming off the beach. The sun is hot and the sky is clear, and your shoulders are stinging slightly from too much sun and not enough sunscreen. You are sandy, young, and deliriously happy. Okay, maybe this is a bit of a dramatic stretch, but it's not that far from the truth.
And what's really nice is that the food at BLT Fish keeps you in that deliriously happy altered universe state all night long. I will say right now without reservation, this grub is GREAT. No it's not haute, cerebral fare involving garnished garnishes or partially deflated foams on dried eel jerky. It is fun and simple, yet marvelous, and it is consequently impossible to leave even one morsel on your plate/basket/shellfish platter.
For instance, Laurent's Caesar salad ($8) is composed of long, wide crisp Romaine ribs, dressed with a cool dressing that packs just the right amount of zing. His New England Clam Chowder ($4/$8) is mind-altering—creamy, rich, and saturated with intense smoky bacon flavor. The Lobster Bisque ($5/$10) is equally dynamic—an exquisite bisque that screams of intense lobster flavor, stocked with massive chunks of sweet meat.
The shellfish platters ($58/98) are rare and fantastic in both size and quality. While finding size is not usually an issue in this town, finding a raw bar of this quality is. There were plump clams, briny oysters in their liquor, immense Jonah crab claws, huge Alaskan King Crab legs, periwinkles, lobster cocktail, and perfectly cooked prawns the size of small house cats, all accompanied by mignonette, a mustardy-mayo, and a zippy hot sauce. To boot, you get a trio of seafood cocktail-style treats—an octopus salad, a red snapper ceviche and possibly the most amazing take on those tiny sweet Taylor Bay scallops—diced and tossed with fiery mustard oil and a touch of fruity apple cider. Magnificent.
For dinner, our table was overrun with plastic baskets. The lobster roll ($22) was just silly it was so good. Nope, no diced up vegetables in there, just lots of succulent lobster folded into mayo, seasoned properly with some lemon juice, then tucked into a buttery brioche roll from Amy's Bread. Laurent's signature, the BLT Tuna Sandwich ($17)—is a masterpiece of texture between thick slices of Amy's crusty country bread—a ruby red slab of tuna (we had it rare), layered with tapenade, bacon, hard-boiled egg, arugula and tomato. The sandwiches were both beautifully overrun by a massive attack of fries—golden, salted and perfectly cooked. Sides ($6) are sized for sharing with a group of twenty to thirty of your friends (portions are VERY generous). Onion strings—an avalanche of twisted fried ribbons of caramelized onions were fantastic, as were the firm and flavorful green beans, the lightly beer-battered jalapeños shamelessly stuffed with cream cheese (so bad, but so good), and the charred corn on the cob served with those little corn-on-the-cob holder things stuck into either side for easy eating. (The menu also includes a selection of fish—wild salmon, scallops, snapper, lobster, and fish & chips—with choice of sides, which we didn't get to. Stay tuned for more on these dishes soon.)
Desserts are absolutely necessary here. No excuses, people. I don't care if you have to jog ten extra miles on the treadmill, eat dessert. Pasty chef Nancy Olson is turning out homemade cakes and pies that will have you ready to come in every afternoon for an after school snack. Key Lime Pie is cheek-puckering and lovely on a crusty base of graham cracker, her chocolate layer cake is moist and fluffy and filled with alternate layers of hazelnut, and white and dark chocolate buttercream, her apple pie is a tall skyscraper of sliced apples with a crunchy coffee-cake like topping and a buttery pastry crust. (Yes, I devoured it.) All together, BLT Fish offers simple, ego-free, great food. Good Times, people. Good times.
Review By: Andrea Strong