June 15, 2005
I've been wanting to try the BLT "chain" for a long time now, not just because chef-owner Laurent Tourondel (BLT stands for Bistro Laurent Tourondel, as if you didn't already know that) is being praised left and right for both BLT Steak and BLT Fish, but also because the names just tickle me the right way. Such curiously low-brow names for these high-end restaurants!
Of the two, BLT Fish is obviously the one to try first since Tourondel is best known for his seafood cuisine.
The dining room on the top floor of the former AZ space is airy and, during my early dinner, bathed in light from the huge skylight. Despite the casual atmosphere with touches like no table cloths and an open kitchen, there's an understated elegance about the room. My one complaint about the space is that you have to go down two stories just to go to the bathroom, shared with the boisterous Fish Shack downstairs. It gave me the distinct feeling as if I was decending down to steerage and that was a little jarring. To add insult to injury, there are three bathrooms being shared by essentially two restaurants. Not enough!
Our server was exceptionally polite and knowledgeable and sort of reminded me of an English butler, minus the tux or the accent. You get the feeling you will be very well taken off during your meal and we were.
For wine, I went with a 2002 Lemelson Thea's Selection Pinot Noir ($66).
After we ordered, we were brought some toasts with warm garlic potato spread and it was simply divine. It was so good I would gladly pay for it.
But if I thought the bread was good, I had no idea what was in store for me when the biscuits came. Hot, moist and buttery on the inside and with a delightful hint of spiciness thoughout. Wow. Possibly the best biscuits I've ever had. And they were gratis! May I have more please?
The first of the dishes we were actually paying for arrived. Tuna Tartare ($14) was dressed with a slightly spicy sauce, sat on a bed of avocado and topped with cripsy shallots and American caviar. This dish is based on textural and flavor contrasts—the cold, clean tuna and the buttery avocado with crunchy shallots made for a terrific combination. Two-and-a-half weeks later, as I write this, the play of the crunchy fried shallots with the tuna is still fresh on my mind. Just exquisite.
Next, we had the Rock Shrimp ($18) salad, which had a distinctly asian flavor from the generous use of cilantro. The shrimps were perfectly done and the white asparagus, mojama and a tiny sunny-side up quail egg in the salad gave you something to think about in every bite.
For our main event, we went with the Sea Salt Crusted New Zealand Pink Snapper. They price their whole fish items by the pound and ours was 1.938 pounds @ $35/pound for a nose-bleed inducing $67.83 (which doesn't even come with any sides). The waiter brought the fish still in the salt crust for inspection and prepped it on a table behind us for serving.
We ordered Crispy Rice Galette ($7) and Hen of the Woods Mushrooms ($8) as sides to go with the fish. The chef provided the Glazed Carrots ($8) on the house. Even something as simple as the carrot had a flavor that was deep and complex.
When asked if we would like a sauce or two for our fish, I told our server to surprise me and he brought us a selection of five different sauces to try. All good, though the lemon-caper brown butter stood out for me.
Everything had been leading up to this point. The raison d'être of this restaurant. The bread, the biscuits, the appetizers—everything—have all been stupendous and I was primed and ready to be blown away by this universally acknowledged fish master. The salt crust is an age old and brilliant method of cooking that keeps all the moisture inside, resulting in succulent and flavorful flesh. While it looks showy and impressive, it's actually an extremely simple way of preparing fish (I said it's a brilliant method precisely because of its simplicity). But "simple" leaves no margin for error. And sadly, this is where BLT Fish erred.
Looking back, I should have just sent the fish back as soon as our server informed us that the chef wanted to warn us that it was a bit salty that day. Then why serve it to us at all? Anyway, we didn't protest and dug in. First the good news. The fish was as exquisitely moist as I had expected from the cooking method and had a pleasingly oily texture. Unfortunatly it was way too salty in many parts. I'm no cook so I'm not sure what they did wrong, all I know is that a properly done salt crust should not make the fish too salty. There were pieces deep inside the fish, however, that weren't too salty and those gave a hint of what could have been. The flavor was so good in those instances, you can really taste the utterly exceptional quality and freshness of the pink snapper. The best way to eat those precious few bites was unadorned, without any sauce to mask its elemental flavors. Too bad those bites were few and far in between. Having been shown the heights it could have reached, I was even more disappointed that they screwed it up so badly.
After the meal, as befitting a restaurant with such a playful name, we were given a Pyrex container filled with green apple cotton candy and balls of donuts and chocholate truffles. The cotton candy was delightful and was a big hit with everyone, including people at the next table who were still in the middle of their appetizers. We passed it around and everyone had a grand old time. When asked, we were even given a doggie bag of it to take away with.
For dessert, we chose the Carmelized Meringue ($9) with a banana-passion fruit sorbet. Another winner.
Bill came out to $260 after tips for the above. I'm very conflicted about BLT Fish. Everything was so damn good but they had to screw up the one thing they shouldn't screw up—the fish. If not for the over salting of our main course, this would have been pure food nirvana. However, since they hit the high note on literally every other item we ate that night, I'm looking forward to giving them a few more tries and see if they can make good on that perfect meal which they came so close in delivering.
BLT Fish, 21 West 17th Street; (212) 691-8888.
Food & Drink