The word "prima" is Italian, the owners are French, and the restaurant is pescaphilic. But there is no confusion as to the wonder of this little East Village newcomer, which has started off strong and seems indubitably capable of supporting this trajectory. Fresh off a three star review from the New York Times, we procured a table for three having reserved a week in advance (parents in town always requires this) and selecting a relatively early hour (again, the parents).
The room was virtually empty when we arrived, though, so maybe such anticipatory calculations weren't necessary. It did provide opportunity to admire the room, however, without any bodies to obscure the details: the restaurant is stark, yet cozy. Exposed brick form the periphery, and the twinkly lighting makes the white tablecloths glow and the crystal glasses sparkle. It is a very pleasant atmosphere- special without being too formal, alive without cacophony. Our host was more than congenial: he single-handedly destroyed any myth of the French being aloof.
The wine list is a smidge on the pricey side, but we ended up with a gorgeous viognier that at least came in under $40. It complemented everything we ate, start to finish. And on that note, we bypassed the extensive raw bar options for two salads. A green one was slicked with an herb vinaigrette boasting thin slices of crisp pear atop a mound of greens. A red one, composed of generous wedges of marinated beets under slivers of Honeycrisp apple and scallion shards, was caught in a flurry of crinkly ricotta salata confetti and a sluice of horseradish spiked dijonnaise- a refreshing riff on that played-out beets-and-goat-cheese standard. Prima gets more than just the fish right.
But the fish it certainly does get right. The menu is simple: you choose your fish and the sauce you wish you accompany it (depending on your selection, see if you even need it). The specimens are pristine and expertly prepared. Red snapper (the most expensive option at $22) came skin-on, a meaty filet underneath a dice of fresh tomatoes, a node of bonito butter and a big slice of lemon for bite. I liked this with the sauce vierge, but Dad took his with a tub of housemade tartar that saw no return to the kitchen. Skate (the cheapest at $15) may have been an even heftier portion, and definitely richer with a cripy golden crust scattered with minced herbs and zesty capers. I didn't need the green condiment I ordered with it, but as I progressed with the sizeable portion, the sauced offered a nice variant on flavor for the otherwise unadorned plate.
To counter this, we also sampled a good variety of the vegetable sides: sauteed wild mushrooms were slightly more cooked than I like, but they were full of fresh fungus flavor, salty and oily and sprinkled with a chiffonade of herbs. Garlic spinach was just that, holding its place as a side for the fish and not too rich to clobber it. Jumbo asparagus was certainly the most novel, with big, charred spears a dance floor for shimmying flakes of bonito. Sushi rice was a sound backdrop, too, tender and chewy with just the right amount of sticky.
Whoever says veggies and fish don't satiate would be off their rockers here: despite how tempting the vanilla mille feuille with strawberry jam sounded, there just wasn't room. In fact, we were packing a doggy bag, which usually only comes into play when I'm saving room FOR dessert. While I'm sure Prima will have no troubles filling its seats by its own caliber, it won't hurt to be able to absorb the overflow from Gabrielle Hamilton's tough-rezzie Prune next door. She set the bar for the East Village, and Prima shows every intention of playing nice with its neighbors.