March 7, 2016 | BITE: My Journal

Craving Crave Fishbar

 Chef Mitgang’s signature: a large fish filet under a tangle of greens with cauliflower and orange.
Chef Mitgang’s signature: a large fish filet under a tangle of greens with cauliflower and orange. 

          The Upper West Side really needed Crave Fishbar. Excuse my being parochial. I’m a woman, a New Yorker, an American and also an Upper West Sider. I took it personally when Chef Todd Mitgang and his partners opened on Amsterdam.  I loved the original, downtown on Second Avenue near 50th, and brought many friends there. Click here to read my Bite: “Crave Fishbar: How Green It Is.”

Crave Fishbar pledges allegiance to serve only wild caught, sustainable & responsibly farmed seafood.

          The ocean-green paint and rough wood in the back room is familiar. How do I love the new outpost? Let me count the ways. It’s not only because it’s a champion for heart-healthy seafood, or that it’s a partner of Monterey Aquarium’s Seafood Watch “committed to serving only wild caught, sustainable and responsibly farmed seafood.” That’s certainly a virtue I admire, even though I’m an outlaw and have not given up bluefin tuna or Atlantic halibut.

The music is loud. We ask the host to turn up the lights so we can see what we’re eating.

          I’m also counting that the kitchen bakes its own bread – part whole-wheat sourdough. I like that our server asks if we want bread before fetching it from below. I hate to see waste, too. The bread is better when it’s cut a little thicker and to-order. Sometimes it’s cut too far in advance. 

True, sea creatures are the point here, but it’s hard to resist the excellent cavatelli with ricotta and pesto.

          When you’ve got a chef determined to bake bread, you can be sure he’s making the pasta, too. Of course, the cavatelli is homemade and the squid ink spaghetti, too. “On a small hand-crank machine,” Mitgang confides. Too bad there’s so little spaghetti in the dish. For me, pasta is about the pasta.

There’s not enough noodles in the squid ink pasta and the sustainable white shrimp are strangely meek.

          Other demanding Upper West Siders might complain if the dish skimped on shrimp, leeks and Fresno chile with its too-few noodles. I wish the shrimp -- sustainable white shrimp, I’m told -- had more flavor.

Expect excellent plancha-grilled octopus with Chinese broccoli in cumin-mustard vinaigrette.

          But the deep bowl of cavatelli curls, steeped in tomato ragout with a plop of molten ricotta and basil purée to stir in, is perfect for me. It’s a huge portion, too. (West Siders like big portions, restaurateurs tell me.) There’s a whole fiery Thai bird pepper riding in on top. Mitgang hopes heat-worshippers will cut it up and add it to the mix.  Ideally, innocents will toss it aside.

So many options here if you’re not in the mood for seafood, like this $15 St. Louis-style pork rib starter.

          Those pastas illustrate another virtue of Mitgang’s menu. If you’re not in an aquatic mood, there are options a sheep’s milk starter and excellent St. Louis ribs, smartly dosed with guajillo chile and dark chocolate, chewy and good, perfect for four to share. 

I’ll confess fried chicken with peppadew peppers and Adirondack cheddar on couscous in my favorite. 

          If I’m not digging into the house’s signature -- a forest of greens piled on a generous side of the fish of the day -- I’ll give in to my favorite Mitgang invention: fried chicken leg with peppadew peppers and cipollini onions on Israeli couscous with a hail of cheddar (Adirondack cheddar, of course). Dark meat lovers like me will tell you how unusual it is to encounter a chicken thigh that isn’t chopped up or otherwise abused under a boring island of white meat.

Crave’s fashionable poke is made with local porgy, Persian cuke, tamari and candied macadamias.

          To start, the fashion-savvy, aware of the craze for Hawaiian food, might want to try Crave’s version of poke (rhymes with okay). Chunks of local porgy are laced with Persian cucumber, tamari and hot sesame oil and dusted with crushed candied macadamias.

Tonight’s Florida red snapper crudo with jalapeño-lemon puree, a chef’s gift, was not on the menu yet. 

          At my most recent dinner, the chef sends a gift of crudo, not yet on the menu. Excellent sashimi cuts of Florida red snapper are brushed with a mix of lemon puree, and sea salt, then topped with a round of breakfast radish, jalapeño and a feather of dill.

On an evening of many starters, this spicy chopped scallop with sweet potato crisps was our favorite.

          At an earlier dinner, we all fell for the sweetness of local scallops, chopped and dressed with crispy sweet potato, homemade oyster crackers and nori powder. The roasted cauliflower soup was grainy that night, but a few weeks later, I swoon over its smooth richness, its islands of fried oysters and roasted cauliflower.

On my last visit, the cauliflower soup with islands of oyster and cauliflorets was totally thrilling.

          “Didn’t you like this?” I ask the friend who ordered it and has passed it along after just a few spoonfuls.

          “It’s too rich,” she responds. “I had to stop eating it to save myself for the rest of dinner.”

          “Yes, very rich,” I agree, taking another spoon full and another. The winter salad I’ve ordered is more than three of us can finish --– a giant hill of mixed greens with cuts of prosciutto and tangled ribbons of fennel, carrot and parsnip under a flurry of grated ricotta salata.

A huge hill of winter salad with vegetable ribbons, prosciutto and ricotta salata is enough for four. 

          “All fish can be prepared simply grilled,” the menu offers. But I prefer Mitgang in full artistic free fall. Since opening, the uptown special of the day ($26 to $31) has arrived looking like a cross-section of the Everglades under a snarl of greens with roasted cauliflower and segments of Cara Cara orange on charred onion puree.

Why not a small side of rice with Thai lobster curry? I ask. I got a lecture on the high price of lobster. 

          Once it was local hake, then red snapper “crisp on one side,” then skrei cod. “It’s only available right now for six weeks,” Mitgang told me when I asked why he chose a Virginia fish  over something local. I suggested that the $33 lobster curry with two kinds of eggplant and fresh bamboo shoots should come with a small side of rice. I got a lecture on the high cost of lobster. “That was a whole pound and a quarter in the bowl,” he said.

Someone in the kitchen really cares about sweets, like this excellent thin mint Blackout panna cotta.

          Would we have ordered desserts if not for my need to taste as a critic? When friends demur, I usually suggest, “just one.” Both the thin mint “Blackout” with devil’s food cake and the rustic apple tart stir enthusiasm. Another evening, cheesecake with blueberry sauce, chocolate sorbet and pistachios from the “more is better” philosophy is a delicious hodgepodge.

A homey Crave classic, house made vanilla ice cream on a warm chocolate chip cookie is just $6.

          Last week at dinner, a guest wants just one scoop of ice cream when she sees it is homemade. That prompts a gift from the kitchen, what was the only dessert downtown in the earliest days: a warm chocolate chip cookie a la mode ($6).

          I had to use my name to win those 7:30 pm tables – anonymously, I got the usual offer of 5 or 9 pm. So, it’s no surprise that we get a booth covered by an enthusiastic server who remembers me from downtown. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a waitress wearing pearls before.

Cheesecake from the more-is-more school: with chocolate sorbet and blueberry sauce.

          Wines by the glass start at $9 and so do desserts. Appetizers from $10 up are mostly enough for two. Entrees begin at $21 and top out at $33. Yet somehow my companions and I never spent less than $75 per person at dinner, possibly a symptom of eating for this blog.

Crème fraîche ice cream sits atop the rustic apple tart slicked with cider toffee.

          Up front, there’s a great deal of shucking at the crowded bar. Any oyster in the house is just $1 weekdays from 4 to 6 pm. On Mussel Mondays, the house offers two pounds of moules-frites for $17 or a 10-oz. petit chateaubriand with fries for $22, and select bottles of French wine for $30.

Carrot cake with cream cheese mousse, horchata ice cream, date caramel, local honey, roasted walnuts.

          The Crave partners were warned they might find Upper West Siders more demanding than their downtown regulars. And guess what? It’s true. We know what we want and how we want it. For us, the menu is just a rough plan. Mitgang tries to word it diplomatically: “Let’s just say there are more special requests.”  

          So go ahead, friends. Don’t be shy. Just ask.

428 Amsterdam Avenue between 80th and 81st streets. 646 494 2750. Dinner Sunday through Wednesday 4 pm to 10 pm. Thursday through Saturday till 11pm.  Late Night Menu/Raw Bar Friday and Saturday until 1 am.



Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2016. All rights reserved.

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