April 4, 2011 | BITE: My Journal
Pier 9: Poseidon’s Next Adventure

All it took was this basket of fried critters to evoke cries and moans. Photo: Steven Richter
All it took was this basket of fried critters to evoke cries and moans. Photo: Steven Richter

        Not so long ago, in the grips of a fried clam belly obsession, I persuaded friends to drive all the way to Gloucester, MA for lunch so I could chose the best of the best. It was heaven and it was hellish, as marathon tastings can be. Nothing on that four stop sea shack crawl left me quite as excited as the amazingly paunchy critters tucked into the “Everything Basket” at Pier 9

Corn filled and spicy biscuits to dab with honey butter. Photo: Steven Richter

        We’re grazing the menu at chef-partner Eric Hara’s new more-than-a-fish-shack, less-than-a-seafood-palace on landlocked Ninth Avenue as a Saturday night crowd rolls in – local, maybe, with some tunnel action too. And our server Eleanor (as in Eleanor Roosevelt, she says, deftly gauging our provenance) is on the case, delivering a cast iron frying pan of biscuits with a twist – jalapeno, scallion, corn,  micro arugula  - and honey butter for those who never know when enough’s enough.

Three for the show: Shrimp tacos, razor clams, salmon ceviche. Photo: Steven Richter

        Quickly the table is covered with starters, a trio of cold appetizers for $22 - good enough ceviche of raw salmon in big chunks with orange and citrus oil, lively chopped razor clams with bits of olive, cilantro and mint, then stuffed into their canoe-like shells, and my favorite, crispy shrimp tacos. There are deviled eggs around town now that go beyond the mere comfort food revival, but Pier 9’s, allegedly primed with lobster, aren’t among them.

How far can whimsy go with macaroni and cheese? Photo: Steven Richter

        “Mac and cheese,” it says on the menu, knowing all too well few can resist. Definitely an exaggeration. Half a dozen pasta rings filled with a fondue of cheddar, fontina, parmesan, cream cheese and cream with a curl of lobster on top does not satisfy the craving for that icon.  It doesn’t need to be Mom’s, it just needs to be pasta and baked, but I can imagine a neophiliac foodie succumbing to the sheer bombastic creativity of it.  Crab-shiitake arancini are a more successful gambit.  I’m dragging mine through marvelously spicy tartar sauce that I’m holding on to in case of emergency later.

There’s a bar tucked away, two dining sections, an outdoor patio awaiting balmy weather.  Photo: Steven Richter

        Now room is made for the kitchen fryer basket piled high with crumbed (maybe a shade too crumbed) seafood: Blue Point oysters, calamari rings, and those obese clams, biggest Ipswich swimmers I’ve ever seen. Such voluptuous beauties need little makeup, so I dip just a half inch into the quartet of embellishments: aji amarillo, more tartar sauce, tasso aioli and a cautiously hot chile sauce. (The latter works for the very good French fries too.)

Soba noodles with vegetables seem austere but ring with flavor. Photo: Steven Richter

        It’s an $18 gathering, enough for the three of us to share, especially since the Road Food Warrior has focused on a first-rate soba noodle offering with bok choy and shiitakes, and we’re dividing a very good lobster roll with more fries. Impossible now to do justice to the excellent cioppino, with its big nicely cooked rectangle of bass and a seafood collection in a puddle of spicy tomato broth.  Nor am I seduced by yet another temptation from the kitchen: the lobster dog with lobster salad on top and Chicago hot dog trimmings.

The $26 lobster roll is piled high, not as mayo’d as some, with fine fries. Photo: Steven Richter

        Does this mostly successful mix of the serious, the sublime and the silly seem like a reach for Ninth Avenue?  Hara, plugging away at the noisy and feverishly antic Nine in the heat of Hell’s Kitchen, couldn’t resist a vacuum next door. After all, his partners were the landlords. So by the time Agua Dulce vacated, he knew it would become a seafood spot, not too high end for the locals, with some of the playfulness he picked up running interference for David Burke for so many years.

San Francisco on Ninth: Sour dough crusted seabass cioppino. Photo: Steven Richter

        Once weather permits he’ll open a sidewalk café and the garage doors out back will roll up to a small patio, a sprawling fiefdom he can easily keep an eye on.

I’m not normally a churros fan but I’m hooked on this S’Mores donut. Photo: Steven Richter

        Now he makes sure Eleanor Roosevelt has brought us dessert.  Not just the sorbets we prudently chose, but also the S’Mores Donut that he has made down the street at Holey Cream Donuts. It’s a huge cushy yeast donut filled with marshmallow and S’Mores ice cream and I cannot stop taking just one last bite. Recently he got his own little robot donut machine.  He’ll be making old fashioned cake donuts for the brunch crowd.

802 Ninth Avenue between 53rd and 54th Street. 212 262 1299.  Dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 to 11 pm. Friday and Saturday 5 to midnight. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 3:30 pm. Happy hour everyday 3:30 to 6:30 pm.