Sunday, December 12, 2010

FISH TAG: Two Chefs with One Stone

A real-feel temperature of 19 degrees and fifty-seven city blocks wouldn't keep me from following Michael Psilakis to wherever he hangs his toque. His departure from Anthos (and Upstairs) was as heart-breaking as his pairing with Ryan Skeen at Fish Tag is exhilarating. Psilakis' "divorce" from Donatella Arpaia as they parted ways to embark upon their own projects resulted in his dissociation with the revolutionary Anthos, the restaurant he made famous for not only its novel take on modern Greek food, but also his irrefutable and unwavering genius in the kitchen. I have eaten foodstuffs that I don't even LIKE, that in his hands are transformed into gustatory miracles. Thankfully, at Fish Tag, that experience is duplicated. Psilakis paired with Ryan Skeen, sort of a wild child of the industry, who has made more of a notorious name for himself than notable. Just like Psilakis, though, I have enjoyed everything Skeen has had his hand in, although obviously I never had to work with him. But so he's got an unwieldy streak; so many geniuses do. At any rate, the two chefs, for whom I have not one, single derogatory comment to make, neither culinarily nor character, have joined forces in an unassuming little nook of a place sandwiched between the stoops of two Upper West Side apartment buildings. Quite easy to miss but for the handsome metal fish suspended before the front window, and a facade harkening up some of Psilakis's Greek roots.

The restaurant's name comes from the price tags tacked to the tails of local market's finest selections. The menu is not just fish-centric, it is all-out, back-and-forth, upside-down and right-side-up maritime. There are only two dishes that don't feature fish, a Greek "Spoon" Salad and a lamb burger, something to which I, personally, would only entrust to Michael himself, or else April (Bloomfield), and though we didn't order it, I'm sure it is worthy, if for whatever reason you end up at Fish Tag... but you don't eat fish. We started with another salad instead, a briny mix of traditional Greek salad ingredients (cucumber, tomato, olives, onion, pepper and feta) plus charred dandelion greens and thinly sliced radishes. For me (an olive nay-sayer), I could've done without the kalamatas, but the salad was still tasty in spite of them. And this one included several tail-on, head-on, shell-on (eyeballs and legs and antennae on!) deep fried shrimp.... the ocean's brilliant answer to the potato chip. An even better salad, however, is the Chicory, Wild Arugula and Bulghar one, a hearty (huge!) mound of the greens and the grain, plus a fantasy mix of bell peppers, breakfast radish, thinly sliced fennel bulb, big chunks of chewy dates, roasted pistachios, smoked almonds, and just a touch of finely minced green olive. Its beauty transcends the plate to palate, bound together only by the juice pomegranate and the heft of its ingredients. Another fantastic starter is the Bacala & Skordalia Brandade "Melt", a crusty slice of thickly cut, rustic bread slathered in a creamy, garlicky skordalia and rich brandade, then topped with some tart and toothsome confit tomato, a rich daub of smoked eggplant puree and capped with a generous shaving of kefaloteri cheese and delicate leaves of baby arugula. I could've easily called it quits after the bulghar salad and the sumptuous crostini "melt", but the food was so good my imagination as to what else he could come up with was going wild, even as my appetite was waning. Smoked octopus danced just beyond the edge of tenderness to a achieve a hearty density capable of standing up to the pungent chorizo, bitter rapini and earthy king oyster mushrooms. I would have had little more of the lemon that was mentioned on the menu to have shown up also in dish, but sincerely, that is really nit-picking.

On to the big stuff- although the menu is not broken down into traditional divisions, and there are starred dishes who's primary component (a fish or crustacean) can be ordered simply grilled with a side of rapini and potatoes. But I'd recommend letting the chef(s) do their jobs and ordering straight from the menu. A simple grilled striped bass with lemon and capers is flawless, the flesh moist and skin crisp, and kissed with an exceptionally fragrant spritz of lemon. But there are more exciting preparations to be had. Dense medallions of sturgeon are topped with a generous dollop of its own eggs, propping up ruffly fronds of celery and translucent slices of radish. Roasted beets are both pureed and smeared beneath the fish, and flank the dish in big chunks anointed with a smooth
horseradish cream. Museum-worthy platings reinforce the composition of flavors here.... these dishes are GORGEOUS. The one dish we had, however, who's appearance slightly belied its grandeur was the sheep's milk dumplings. These ethereal gnocchi, pillow-soft (I'd always read that, but I'd never experienced the bliss of an definitive example), full of mild, milky flavor, nestled in a thick cheesy, gravy brimming with tender bay scallops just barely bigger than
pearls, generous morsels of the freshest blue crab, and vivified with a gentle breath of aji amarillo pepper to add a hint of sweet heat. I'll eat my hat if Ryan didn't have his hand in this one. This dish is coming in on the tail end of the year, but if it doesn't top the list of 2010's Best Dishes, I might quit this "job". (I'm kidding. I wouldn't do that. I'd just know all the list-writers are incompetent and that I should have been them.) It was so good, I seriously want it again. Right. Now. The one dish I am horrified to admit that I was just this shy of having enough gumption to order was the branzino stuffed with headcheese. I was derailed by that filling, but as it was described, wrapped in caul fat and served with mushrooms confit... well, somebody get it and tell me how awesome it was. I'm sure I missed out.

No desserts here (nor had we room). But somehow a little dish of chestnut and fig gelato seemed so suitable that we ordered it anyways, along with tiny cups of impressive espresso.. sometimes you just have to fling your belt off with wild abandon. That's how Psilakis and Skeen seem to approach their cooking (and perhaps their lives), and you'll be all more content because of it. They may not be predictable, but let them do their thing. They'll blow your socks off.

222 W 79th St, New York 10024
(Btwn Amsterdam Ave & Broadway)

Phone: (212) 362-7470