The John Dory

The problem with seafood is that it's become another word for "diet." Just as diners have their "diet plate" section with the cottage cheese and fruit plate, nearly every restaurant now offsets decadent meat dishes with an obligatory light seafood dish. The ploy is so obvious that they might as well have an asterisk after these neglected fish entrees - "for the ladies!" And because a plain fillet of fish can't put up much of a fight against meatballs or pork belly, most non-dieters have been ignoring fish altogether.

Well, no longer. There's nothing remotely "diet" about the seafood at The John Dory. Chef April Bloomfield of the Spotted Pig has found the fat in fish, or when it's not there, added it in the form of butter aplenty. How unladylike! But if her goal is to bring hearty, pub-style seafood to New York, she has certainly exceeded it. The most exciting fish dish I remember eating in London would be the excellent fish and chips at Geales in Notting Hill.

The whole aesthetic of the place is very appealing: old school nautical, like a seaside restaurant you'd stumble upon in a tiny resort town. What makes it citified is the obvious expense that went into it, plus lots of visual puns like the lures "swimming" in the resin countertop of the bar, and the lighted tank of real fish doomed to watch their brethren being consumed - which may be why it's also the site of an infamous eel suicide incident.

The most difficult thing about the menu is deciding what to order, since there are so many appealing things on it. Marie Fromage and I started from square one, a mix of East and West Coast oysters, which were fresh, clean, alternately salty and sweet, and accompanied by an interesting mignonette made of peppers instead of the usual shallots.

If there were one dish that summed up the direction of the food, it would be the fantastic oyster pan roast with sea urchin butter crostini. First you have excellent quality ingredients - huge, plump oysters, salty-fatty sea urchin, and fabulous butter - then you have the technique. The oysters are submerged in a buttery sauce with a slight vinegar/lemon edge to cut it, like a hollandaise laced with fresh tarragon. It gives another meaning to "slow food" - the only way to eat it is slowly.

For the seafood equivalent of foie gras, look no further than this monkfish liver dish. This was seriously decadent and should only be attempted by true liver fans.

Of course we had to spring for the signature dish, the John Dory. The only problem is, you have to choose whether you want them to filet this fish for you ahead of time or if you want to do it yourself. This presented a sort of quandary, since I actually like to see (and photograph) the whole fish before I eat it. The alternative is rather disappointing, like carving a Thanksgiving turkey in the kitchen instead of at the table. And perhaps because the majority of the seating is at the bar, they don't offer to filet it tableside. When the waiter disappeared, leaving us with a whole fish staring back at us from the plate, I felt like a flailing "Top Chef" contestant, racking my brain for some memory of fish fileting technique.

When we did manage to hack it to pieces, it was quite good. The exterior had a wonderful char and the interior was light with an herbal perfume to it. The salsa verde was perhaps a little too acidic for the fish, but overall it was an excellent.

We visited the John Dory right after Bruni's review and were surprised he gave it two stars instead of three. The casual decor and open kitchen do seem at odds with the prices (our dinner cost $100 each including tip), but surely Bloomfield and Ken Friedman deserve points for the inventiveness mentioned in the lede. The best American seaside restaurants and London fish spots (including Geales) are also casually decorated - the prices match the fish.

The John Dory
85 10th Avenue, between 15th and 16th Streets
New York, NY
(212) 929-4948