|DON'T FEAR THE OYSTER... A YOKEL'S GUIDE TO GOURMET FISH.|
The first time I went to Lure Fish Bar, I ended up in the emergency room. But it's not what you think -- no bad oysters rumbling in my gut, no slender fish bone stuck in my throat. I hadn't even ordered yet. I was just getting settled into a bar-side booth, with a prospective eye on the swordfish club sandwich and the Bellini Martini. I did something a prouder man might not have done: I name-dropped. Ever so gently, I told the waiter that my girlfriend is a cook in the kitchen there, and asked if he wouldn't mind fetching her for me. He seemed cool and unfazed by my revelation.
"Certainly," he said. "I'll go see if she's free. What's her name?"
"Christina," I said, nestling deeper into the navy leather booth.
This is Soho after all, a place where the secret code of entitlement-by-association is still a powerful factor in the enjoyment equation. I was feeling more emboldened by the second, thanks in no small part to Lure's peculiar design. The expansive dining room is the cabin of a luxury yacht, complete with spit-shined, wooden deck floors, nautical maps, and rows of replica portholes. Having never been on a yacht, I was feeling exactly like I imagine people who dine on yachts feel -- rich and frivolous. It's the kind of place where you'd expect to find a silver-haired patrician gliding across the floor in deck shoes dictating a letter to the Moroccan ambassador. The light is amber and dimmed, the ceilings are lofty and fitted with convincing faux skylights (Lure is below street level), and everything that isn't teak is either white or navy blue leather. It's the kind of place that could make eating a hot dog seem opulent, and you can practically feel the soft ebbing of the Mediterranean just outside.
My lunch companion and I were considering whether to have some oysters when the waiter reappeared, looking slightly ruffled.
"Actually," he said. "Christina isn't here. She's in the hospital."
A buttered roll, en route to my mouth, fell with a dull thump onto the
pearlescent china. His voice dropped to a sympathetic coo.
"She cut off the end of her finger about half and hour ago, sir. She's in the emergency room. Would you like anything to drink?"
My personal luxury yacht had suddenly run into rough waters. The manager came to the table to reassure me.
"See?" she said, holding out her hand, on which several fingers were square-tipped. "I cut off the ends of my fingers about ten years ago on a food processor. You can't even tell. It happens to
the best of us."
It should be noted that Christina is not clumsy or reckless in the kitchen. The cook's life can be brutal, so the next time you find yourself relaxing over a lovely meal, just give a little shout out to all the fingertips lost, all the blistered oil burns, all the sore wrists and aching backs, that made it possible.
Hailing from the land-locked and maddeningly square state of Colorado, my exposure to fish growing up was limited almost exclusively to Red Lobster's shrimp. There was popcorn shrimp, shrimp scampi and shelled shrimp cocktail, all of which were routinely drowned in either crumb-littered ramekins of melted butter or enormous vats of cocktail sauce. Which is to say, if it didn't taste like fry batter, in my book, it just wasn't fish. The only place I even approached anything like raw fish was the lox (smoked salmon) my family ate every Sunday with bagels and cream cheese. It was our sole nod to Jewishness in a neighborhood of Mormons. In short, I never really tasted fish, much less fresh fish, until I left the state. Thus I was engendered with the illusions of land-locked beefeaters:
1. Fish is smelly and dangerous. (Think of all the little bones!)
For our entrée ($26) we shared the grilled dourade with chilis, herbs and lime, which addresses myth number 1. Dourade is an expensive sea fish, and it arrives at the table just as it swam -- complete with fins and head attached. Having been thoroughly bathed in herbs and topped in chunks of lime, the smell is aromatic and light. After gently removing the backbone, we only recovered one slender rib bone, which served nicely as a toothpick later. The meat is white and delicate with a subtle fish flavor. Set against spice of the chili and the sharp tang of the lime, it is an intense combination of tastes that balance beautifully with the lightness of the fish itself. For more adventurous sorts, try eating the eyes. Just pop those little suckers out and chomp away; it's really much tastier than you'd expect.
Verdict: No bones about it, this fish is dangerously tasty!
Raw fish can be tricky. Despite having been treated to excellent raw dishes, some people still aren't convinced of its greatness. They tend to cite two reasons. Either they are turned off by the texture, describing it as 'slimy' or 'creepy,' or they claim that it's good, but that no matter how many spicy tuna rolls they eat, it just doesn't fill them up. The former of course, can't be helped. If you don't like the consistency of raw fish, then you just suck, so go ahead with your Big Mac and leave the good stuff for the smart people. To the people who say raw fish (usually sushi) doesn't fill them up, I say this: Maybe it's not that the fish is too small, maybe it's that your belly is just too goddamned big. When raw fish is served, most of the time your focus should be on the taste, and if you're too busy thinking about your stomach you will miss out on some of the greatest food experiences in the whole, wide world.
Several of Lure's raw dishes left me writhing with food-gasmic desire. The fluke ($12), a flatfish similar to flounder, scratched that special itch for me. It comes sliced into small strips, and mounded in a pool of tomato-shallot marinade (made with vinegar and oil.) It's topped with halved yellow and red cherry tomatoes, and the whole thing is sprinkled with baby basil. The fish is cool and smooth and so creamy that it seems, literally, to melt in your mouth. The acidic qualities of the tomato and vinegar play the yin to the fish's yang and the shallot is just crunchy enough to make you notice how soft the fish is. It's hard to overestimate how much fresh herbs can add to a dish, but especially in this case, the pungency of baby basil really launches the whole dish right over the top of incredible, somewhere into far reaches of supercalafragilisticexpialadocious. Other standout raw bar items include the Arctic Char with trout roe, creamy horseradish and dill puree ($14), and the American Red Snapper with cerignola olives, red pepper flakes and lime ($14).
Verdict: Raw fish is extremely, dangerously tasty!
As near as I can tell, oysters are like wine. They have really great names and specific regional associations -- Kumamoto of Washington State, Blue Point of Long Island, Beau Soleil of New Brunswick, etc. ($9 for three) Supposedly oysters also have very distinguishable tastes, but I'll be damned if I can tell much difference between them. Granted, I've only eaten them a handful of times, and usually after a few martinis, but I can say this: oysters are extremely fun to eat, namely because you don't actually eat them -- you slurp them. There's something both erotic and predatory about this. Erotic because, well, let's face it, slurping anything tends to have at least a little erotic potential, especially something as slippery and soft as oysters. Predatory because you're not just slurping them off a plate or a bowl -- you're slurping them straight out of their home. But the absolute best thing about slurping raw oysters is their sheer ocean-ness. In your hand rests the craggy, ocean-tossed shell, and inside it is a tiny little window to the sea. That's what oysters taste like, the high seas.
Verdict: Hey, I'm not dead yet! Plus I feel like I just went to the beach and got laid.
There is one more dish that cannot be ignored; a dish that is so irresistibly decadent and so bizarre that it must be mentioned -- the himachi and foie gras skewer with red miso marinade and grilled pineapple ($18). Just give it a minute to sink in. Himachi, a white, fairly mild fish otherwise known as Yellowtail. It's a very easygoing fish, a whatcha-see-is-whatcha-get fish. Foie gras, well, that's another matter. It is the most wickedly sumptuous of all foods. Foie gras ('fat liver' in French) is duck or goose liver pate produced by arduously fattening the bird -- i.e. force feeding it, in order to make the liver as fatty and rich as possible. Then they're marinated in cognac and mixed with truffles (the liver, not the bird). I won't lie, the end product tastes awesome -- meaty and buttery and velveteen. It's like the ultimate Cadbury Crème Egg, only savory. I've often imagined Satan himself swimming around in a giant vat of bubbling foie gras. In this case cubes of it are skewered next to cubes of himachi, all of it grilled and then disguised under a blanket of tiny, diced pineapple. The tastes themselves play very well, but getting a whole mouthful of foie gras when you're expecting fish can get a little too close for comfort. It's rich -- rich like Donald Trump with a mouthful of diamonds. It's the children's equivalent of eating the entire cheese part of a Handi-Snack at once, instead of spreading it on the crackers -- certainly worth trying for pure audacity, but a little overwhelming, too.
Verdict: Raw tuna + goose liver = Holy shit!
Brian Bernbaum writes a monthly 'Yokel's Guide' dining column for The Black Table. He is also the mind behind Hipsters Are Annoying.