White fish have always been somewhat of a mystery to me. Don't get me wrong, it is something that I love to eat and very often order. But, when it comes down to it, I am far from an expert on differentiating between the various types of fish. I see sole, flounder, cod, sea bream, John Dory, skate, catfish (you get the idea) on the menu and I really never know what makes a certain fish unique or more appealing than the next. Well, John Dory (aka St. Pierre) just moved up in the ranks in the sea of white fish for me. A restaurant serving seafood as excellent as The John Dory has given new meaning and recognition to what I used to think of as just another white fish. While a restaurateur's mission is to come up with a catchy name, he or she would never settle for using mediocre food to draw in diners. Without having to ask or even ordering it, I am fairly confident I can tell you what their signature dish would be.
The John Dory is located on tenth avenue in the land of large-scale restaurants. It is sandwiched between Del Posto and Craftsteak while facing Morimoto across the way. Unlike its neighbors, it is actually a smaller, more intimate atmosphere. And, unlike its Italian, Japanese, and red meat focused counterparts, the John Dory is based around a nautical theme - both in setting and its menu. In this long, narrow space with stained glass ceiling lined with fish, there are numerous options for diners. Up front there is the regular bar backed by a live, bright aquarium where those enjoying anything from cocktails to a full meal are able to dine without having to reserve in advance. The oyster bar, further in the back, actually takes reservations and, while it specializes in raw fare, full meals are also encouraged. For additional seating, but equally as intimate, there are a few tables in the main room as well as in a tiny room tucked away behind the aquarium. No matter your location, you definitely feel as though you have stepped off of Manhattan soil and into a world under the sea (far from the East or Hudson Rivers).
This is not the kind of place where I would have expected an amuse bouche, but right away, we were offered a taste of smoked arctic char with creme fraiche served with crispy yuca chips. This reminded me of one of my favorite Nantucket treats - blue fish pate from the Straight Wharf Fish Store. Not only was I brought back to one of my favorite destinations, but I immediately realized that this was going to be an evening of high quality food - and I probably should have raised all expectations - perhaps, petit fours at the end! Besides mains, appetizers, and sides, The John Dory offers raw bar and crudo selections. While the oysters are as delicious as expected, the live sea urchin with blood oranges is worth trying for both taste and presentation. For those of you with texture issues, this might not be your dish, but I highly recommend it for an adventuresome palate. For a more traditional appetizer, the grilled octopus salad with celery, fennel, and bottarga (cured fish roe) is an excellent choice.
It goes without mention that the whole roasted John Dory for two is an excellent main course. However, I was blown away by another fish - the pan roasted cod with mantecato, chili, and artichoke chips. The flavors and level of spices were the perfect combination - starring yet another white fish in my books. If you are looking for a taste of meat amidst all of this delicious seafood, the seared squid stuffed with chorizo is a great option. Even though you probably don't need to order anything more, at a restaurant this good, it is hard to pass up on affordable options such as the side dishes. The sweet potatoes with marrow are extremely hearty while melting in your mouth. And, my end of the meal prediction was right on. Just when you are nice and full, patting yourself on the back for closing up the dessert menu without ordering, a small plate of sweets is automatically placed in front of you. The John Dory surely does not cut corners as the night winds down - serving a unique pomegranate, chipotle caramel and a more traditional hazelnut truffle - both rich and full of flavor, officially setting you over the edge.
Any themed restaurant, especially a nautical one, has high potential of not being taken seriously in the culinary world. Let's hope The John Dory has just raised the bar for the genre. This may be the first restaurant with pet fish while actually knowing how to cook fish. The John Dory is not the kind of place where you need to go for a big event, but rather a fun, yet relaxed night out with a friend or two. I have a feeling when eating out at other restaurants, I will hear myself saying "I'll have the John Dory" more often these days. But, I am even more certain, whether it's a weekend or a weeknight, I'll be saying "Meet me at the John Dory" - it's the perfect, island escape and you don't even have to worry about costumed and singing waiters or sharks!
The John Dory
85 Tenth Avenue
New York, NY 10011
Phone: (212) 929-4948