Monday, August 16, 2010

CHOPTANK: Safe From the Chopping Block

Since Le Bernardin is way out of my price range (and I'm not expecting to get proposed to in the foreseeable future), I sought out a protege of One of the Great Ones (Eric Ripert) as a more bill-friendly destination. Matthew Shaefer jumped ship from the Michelin-starred seafood mecca to The Mermaid Inn (see review here), and now partnering with Josh Morgan in a steakhouse-style fish joint that swaps out the bovine for the piscine.

The heavily planked walls create the feeling of a swanky ship's galley, hung
with nautical maps, serene portraits of maritime
captains (I thought this one-> above our table, bore a striking resemblance to Mayor Bloomberg, although my dining companion begged to differ), and postcards from seaside vacation spots. Rough brown paper rolls out over the table tops (most of which were full that evening), so bring along some pens or crayons and create a masterpiece while you dine. The vibe here is easy enough to allow this to be an inoffensive pasttime. The menu is pretty easy, too, and full of simple classics and some craveable renditions. They'll start you off with some excellent, Old Bay-seasoned, uber-crunchy potato chips, but bypass the weirdly pink crab dip, which is a sturdy block of crab-flecked cream cheese, tasty enough in and of itself, but far too dense to hold up to the chips, which are fine on their own. There are much better things to eat on the menu anyways, so save your appetite. For turf's sake, pickled turnips and crunchy roasted pecans decorate lightly dressed leaves of bitter arugula for a pretty summer salad. A meaty roast of foresty mushrooms
are flecked with humble dandelion greens and enriched by a golden, melty yolk just waiting to release its richness into the fungi.

Hinting toward the surfier side of things, white gazpacho (an increasingly available albino version of the classic) is a smooth puree, mildly sweet with almonds, bobbing with an ample toss of fresh crabmeat and amped up with tiny pools of spicy chorizo oil. For the most part, portion size and preparation give a nod to the "Chop" aspect of the name, while ingredients are focused on the "Tank". Schaefer definitely does not follow in the delicate footsteps of The Ripper, who is notorious for precious finesse and mi-cuit cooking style. Here, the flavors are robust, with very little horsing around- and if anything, he tends to overcook things. Skate, however, was sauteed to a crispy golden brown, and refreshingly NOT served in a soggifying broth that is practically omnipresent with this species for some dumb reason. The edges had a bit of crunch, and the large wing with drizzled with a savory caper brown butter.. no surprises, no flaws. The undercooked spaetzle on the side was somewhat oily and flavorless, however, but I was happy enough with the fish to dismiss it without much impact. Plus, we had a lovely side of juicy, plump green beans that tasted of my mom's garden to pick up the slack. Just steamed haricots with a hint of lemon and butter that you could eat with your fingers (well, at least we did. Emily Post said it's okay.) A broth worked wonders with the seabass, on the other hand, in another gutsy preparation with savory blackeyed peas cooked with smokey bacon, joined by several cockles whose shells were useful in ladling up both broth and beans. Here, even more of the soupy base would've worked. The skate worked perfectly with an exquisite riesling - the Gotham Project (apparently this Gothamite was what they were creating it for.. I really loved this wine) from North Fork, slightly tart, juicy and honeyed, and the bass went well with a wheaty, hoppy beer.

Desserts change daily, and are on the traditional side, mostly tweaked cookie, cake and ice cream deals. We were gently tempted by a couple of the offerings, but bellies were really full enough not to require it. Speaking of appetites, they do an All-You-Can-Eat crab feed, served with market sides and steamed 'taters, which I WOULD be tempted to return for. But there seems to be some price disparity, however, because I've seen it advertised for $50, while on the website it states $65... which I'd say is about $20 too much, unless you can REALLY get your claws out, and crab in.
Gives crabmeat stuffing a whole new meaning.

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