Restaurants rarely surprise me anymore. You eat out in this town for long enough and you kind of know what to expect. It’s not a necessarily a bad thing. After all, it’s possible for a restaurant to be thrilling without being surprising. But my recent visits to Harbour surprised me for two reasons. First, I was surrounded by men. Honestly, they were everywhere. I found them first seated at the smooth highly polished teak bar where I was sipping a virgin mojito (a fantastic minty limeade), waiting for Craig. Four scruffy guys, who looked like they’d just hopped off their surfboards, were nursing cold frosty pints of Rogue. A few minutes later, a pack of young suits strutted in after work, as if Wall Street were still thriving. And then a cast of more distinguished men, the sort that might appear in a Viagra or Cialis commercial, made their way through the white-washed bar room into the dining room.
I was perplexed. Now, men eat out, I understand that, but not at restaurants like Harbour, and not in such numbers. It’s not like I was at Peter Luger’s or Hill Country. Harbour is no boy’s club. It’s a breezy, yacht-inspired fish restaurant where food is delicate, service is precise, and the décor makes you feel like a suntanned goddess on the bow of a yacht sailing through St. Tropez. It’s not exactly the sort of place you’d expect to find packs of men drinking pints of beer, but there they were. I felt like I was a fly on a wall in the men’s locker room.
Perhaps the heavy male crowd comes from the fact that owner Richard Schaeffer has served on the board of NYMEX Holdings Inc. since 1990, and in 2006 led the company as Chairman, or perhaps just because of the restaurant’s proximity to the financial district. Who knows?
While the crowds of men didn’t necessarily make sense, they seemed to be quite happy drinking at the beach-house inspired bar, and feasting in the rear dining room, fashioned like the interior of a yacht with mirrored portholes, glossy ocean liner inspired woods, and white leather booths topped with glowing skylights. I can’t blame them. Joe Isidori, a young, ambitious chef transplanted from Donald Trump’s DJT in Vegas (where he earned one Michelin star), is doing some nice work here at Harbour, serving a fresh market-driven menu heavy on sustainable seafood.
Michelin stars must still be on Isidori's mind as his food at Harbour is intricately presented, with buttery tableside sauces, frothy foams, impeccable precision and eagle-eye attention to detail. We may be in a recession, but Isidori doesn’t believe in dumbing food down on the plate. What he does believe in, though, is value.
And that’s the second thing that surprised me about Harbour—the prices. Here, in this glamorous high seas restaurant marked by thoughtful extras like amuse bouche, sorbet between dinner and dessert, and plates of petit fours, you’ll find appetizers for $8 and $9, entrees for $19, $20, and $21, and a four course tasting menu for $45. There’s even a section of the wine list dedicated to bottles under $20. It’s absurd. I kept wondering if my menu had been misprinted. Nope. This is just a restaurant that manages to deliver incredible value. How nice.
Now, about the food. It’s also rather surprising. While the prices are along the lines of a beloved neighborhood bistro, Isidori’s cooking style is very much of the expense account four-star genre. Some of the plates—in particular those adorned with foams and tableside sauces—seem like they should be served in another time (early 90s) and another place (say, Le Bernardin). His presentations seem almost too fussy for the price point. It’s like getting couture for off the rack prices. But hey, I’m just observing, not complaining. While some of the dishes may be a little too made up, they're beautiful, and you’ll still find good substance underneath it all.
If you’re craving a nice light start to your meal, you’ll be pleased with the current amuse bouche—a cold and refreshing pea soup poured over Meyer lemon gelee. Ditto the garden salad. For something that certainly sounds like it could be an afterthought, this salad is terrific. Perfect cubes of jewel-toned beets top a fluff of butter lettuce adored with cucumbers, radishes and hunks of smoked blue cheese dressed in a cool, tangy and terrific buttermilk dressing ($8). It’s crisp and bright and ideal for the current heat wave. It dovetails well with an appetizer of scallop ceviche ($10): slivers of creamy sea scallops that look like quarter-sized pearls boldly seasoned with lumps of sea urchin and a vivid Thai mignonette.
Entrée highlights include a not-to-be-missed bowl of plump Maine mussels done Korean style—steeped in a smoky, feisty broth that’s thick with cabbage and bacon and hot with “kim chi flavors” ($19). Another winner was the hake—a silky fish that’s getting lots of play these days thanks to its sustainability—served in a mild yellow curry, with fat shu mai and diced Chinese sausage ($25). And if you’re craving lobster, try the succulent butter-poached Nova Scotia lobster plated like a portrait of spring in a vivid, grassy sauce made from peas, showered with wild ramps, crispy peas, the sweetest baby carrots and shiitakes ($39).
But there are also some missteps: Beau Soleil oysters are topped with a citrus foam, which sadly drowns out the beautiful briny flavors of the oysters. The Kampachi crudo is similarly overwhelmed by slices of Serrano ham ($14)—you can’t taste the fish under a weight of such smokiness. This imbalance also crept into a couple of entrees. The arctic char, an exquisitely cooked piece of pink fish, was accompanied by a cloying concert of miso, grapefruit, and yuzu ($24), and a nice and tender slab of salty, meaty hanger steak felt completely at odds with a ginger parsnip puree that was so creamy and sweet it could have been the filling for a dessert ($23). We ordered a side of spiced fries ($6)—golden potato logs nestled in a white dinner napkin. These worked much better with the steak than that parsnip puree, and I don’t see why the dish isn’t just transformed into steak frites (adding some sort of green vegetable on the plate would be nice, too.)
If you are up for dessert ($8) and love chocolate the way teenage girls love Hannah Montana, I’d suggest the black forest cake—a dense and decadent rectangle layered with brandied and sour cherries, whipped cream, and chocolate mousse. But really, this is only if you are a serious chocolate fanatic. One bite and I was done. The espresso soufflé, with pistachio ice cream, should come with a prescription, or potentially be sold as a narcotic on the black market. There’s enough caffeine in there to wake the dead. But I could not get enough of the butterscotch pudding, a soothing childhood treat topped with salty popcorn and little brown butter sandwich cookies, and vanilla ice cream. Dip the popcorn in the pudding and you’ve got the best caramel corn you’ve ever tried. It’s a lot of fun.
I want to take a moment here to emphasize something other than the food. The service at Harbour is truly exceptional. You can relax and enjoy your meal without waving down a waiter for another cocktail, hailing over a busboy to have your water glass refilled, or wondering when the kitchen will remember to cook your entrees. This is a place that takes care of its guests, and that makes for an exceedingly civilized and serene dining experience, aided by well spaced tables, and fine acoustics that allow for intimate conversation. All of these elements make the value offered here even more impressive. It’s a restaurant for all occasions. You might bring the parents, take a date, or invite a colleague. Or you could just show up and join the guys at the bar. You won’t be alone for long.
Review By: Andrea Strong