The John Dory
This restaurant is closed!
85 10th Ave (15th St)
City: New York, NY
Phone: (212) 929-4948
Site: Visit the restaurant site
Chef: April Bloomfield
2nd Cuisine: Seafood
Area: West Village
For those of you who might be under the assumption that The John Dory is just some sort of fish-centered iteration of The Spotted Pig, I’m here to tell you that you’re way off base.
The John Dory may have come from the same parentage of the Pig (Ken Friedman and chef April Bloomfield) but it is different in almost every way: style (more elegant), substance (reservations accepted), décor (live fish instead of framed pigs), and service (waiters in starched white shirts and Windsor knotted ties, rather than vintage Rolling Stones tee shirts). The similarity between the Dory and the Pig is singular: the food. Just as your life changed when you had your first plate of gnudi, and your first Roquefort-topped burger, so will your culinary life be altered when you taste Bloomfield’s whole fish and Ochs' crudo.
Friedman envisioned his sophomore project as a British seafood pub in the style of London’s J Sheekey, as a sort of English version of Balthazar, “but with more oysters and Guinness than Sancerre,” he told me last fall. What’s resulted after over a year of planning and building is a actually quite a bit more formal than Balthazar. Tables are draped in creamy white linen and set with formal china and flatware, and the menu is priced to match the elegant accessories; most entrees are over $30 and two are $50. The Spotted Pig this ain’t.
The restaurant offers three choices of where to dine: at the lively food bar (equipped with swivel stools upholstered in fisherman prints, set aside for walk-ins only), in a small dining room seating about 15 that’s secreted behind the fish tank, or in a rather narrow section of elevated banquettes that face the open kitchen and make you feel as though you are dining on a stage. We were seated on the stage, which is quite frankly, not terribly comfortable. The tables take up most of the room on this plank-sized elevation, leaving little room for getting up once you are seated. If you need to use the ladies’ or men’s room, do so before you sit down.
Susie, Jamie, Adrienne and I had dinner at The John Dory (reservation for 8:30pm) after seeing Slumdog Millionaire (a heartwarming and heartbreaking film that’s a must-see) and were ushered inside the narrow entry way like children from a snow day and a warm, smiling, beautiful (natch), young (see previous parenthetical) woman took our coats and welcomed us inside with the enthusiasm of finding a long lost friend. “How are you this evening?” she asked, and seemed genuinely eager to hear (and listen to) our responses. Her’s was not a rhetorical question. Whether you have a reservation or just want to take a look around, she’s there to let you know you should come right in. Make yourself at home. How lovely.
Coats taken, we were escorted down a narrow walkway, through the long food bar that on one end faces a massive saltwater fish tank (it’s really more of an aquarium) swimming with a striking collection of tropical fish in neon yellows and bright blues, and on the other end faces the open kitchen where April and her chef de cuisine Sara Ochs, are doing wonderful things to all manner of sea creatures: oysters and clams, sardines and squid, sea bass and tuna, and the restaurant’s namesake catch, John Dory.
While the room’s narrow build is a bit trying to navigate, the restaurant has an infectious energy and that Spotted Pig in-the-right-place at-the-right-time vibe. What’s even better: the food is top notch, but it don’t come cheap.
Then again, if I’m going to spend $50 on a whole fish (it feeds two if not more), I’m going to do it here. The philosophy in this kitchen is clear: bring it! Acid, heat, salt, and smoke are all employed with subtlety. While the flavors may be big—anchovy being a prominent choice of this kitchen—nothing is heavy handed. As is the case at The Spotted Pig, April is a poster girl for beautiful ingredients treated to a supporting cast of bold yet graceful textures and flavors. You’re in for a treat.
The menu changes often depending on the daily catch and starts off with selections from the raw bar—there are littlenecks ($2.50 each), oysters ($3 each), and lobster with aioli ($14) —but there’s also a selection of fresh and simple sashimi-styled crudo like a yellowtail with ginger that tastes as though the fish was sliced up straight off the boat and topped with fresh ginger by a clever fisherman lying in wait. Appetizers include a fish soup with rouille ($16), an oyster pan roast with sea urchin butter crostini ($20) and a daring plate of cod milt (those would be, well, sperm, explained by the waiter as the male equivalent of roe) with lemon caper and parsley ($16). I’m a fairly adventurous eater, but I draw the line at cod sperm.
Instead of fish scrotum, we went for the sardines a la plancha ($18) and they were terrific: three extra plump and meaty whole fish, topped with a rustic, rough chop of toasted almonds, with dark raisins and a sprinkle of paprika.
April has always done great salads (her pumpkin salad at The Spotted Pig is one of my favorites in the city) and her salad of escarole with creamy anchovy dressing is another winner, though it is not for the anchovy averse. It’s like a Caesar salad on steroids, locked and loaded with anchovy both in the dressing and dressing the leaves, upping the flavor ante. While Jamie was turned off, Susie and I loved it.
As you might expect from its name, The John Dory is not exactly a place for carnivores. If you’re looking for meat, there’s a massive $50 ribeye that’s thick and juicy and served on the bone, topped with large pats of gooey bone marrow. While you might expect a burger or a roast chicken or some other meat option in addition, your only choice is the steak. Adrienne doesn’t really like fish and so she had the steak, but let me be the first to tell you, it can feed two, at least. In our case, it fed all four of us quite easily, along with a whole grilled Mediterranean sea bass ($27) that could not have been cooked more perfectly: the flesh fell off its backbone, and was moist and sweet, perfumed with lemon and herbs. Again, the anchovy made an appearance, this time in an anchovy-rosemary-pesto, a condiment which I’d gladly slather on everything from charred steak to grilled tuna to toasted bread.
To round things out (and because who doesn’t like anything stuffed with chorizo) we also ordered the chorizo-stuffed squid ($24)—three large squid that are stuffed (almost like blintzes) with a rich and smoky diced chorizo filling, all resting on a bed of white gigante beans in a smoky tomato broth.
Sides are worth a meal in and of themselves, especially the sweet potatoes cooked on the plancha with marrow butter ($8, marrow is great for lots of things apparently), and the spiced roasted carrots ($8) that have a Moroccan attitude, spiced with cinnamon and cumin and topped with a bit of yogurt. We skipped something called Jenson’s Temptation ($10), a gratin of potatoes that we decided might be overkill (or artery kill). Next time.
Desserts take a page from the British, with dishes like Eccles cake with Stichleton cheese ($11), Treackle pudding (for two, $20), and Magner’s cider jelly with cardamom cream ($10). We opted for something a little more familiar: The John Dory sundae ($11)—two scoops of malted and vanilla ice cream served in a footed glass bowl topped with chocolate and peanut butter sauce and crushed up bits of honeycomb candies. It’s for the little kid that lives inside all of us. To satisfy our more grown up tastes, we had a slice of the quince and almond tart ($11), that’s dense and moist and sweetened with pockets of stewed fruit. It tastes like something out of an Italian kitchen.
Happy and full, we managed to make our way down off the stage, past a couple clearly straining over a first date (he in a suit, she in a pastel blue dress adorned with rhinestone bows, oh my), past the food bar packed with hotties and lovelies, and down the narrow hallway past the gorgeous hostess (who wished us a very good night and thanked us for coming), and back out onto the streets, which were by now snowy and wet. A fleet of black town cars and imposing Cadillac Escalades were lined up on 10th Avenue (apparently the recession does not extend past 9th Avenue) waiting to usher diners safely and (dryly) from table to home. Not the sort of thing you’d find outside the Spotted Pig, but then, The John Dory is a different animal all together.
Review By: Andrea Strong