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THE BEST: Cooked Whole Fish in NYC


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Rick Moonen of rm, Anita Lo of Annisa, and Mary Redding of Mary's Fish Camp were among the chefs quoted in "When the Whole Is Greater Than Its Parts" in yesterday's New York Times (link here; you may have to scroll down to the appropriate spot), an article about cooking whole fish. Would you say these chefs are among the best at cooking whole fish dishes in New York? Who else, or which restaurants, would you nominate? I would have to think that Chinese restaurants deserve consideration in this category. I love whole fish dishes in really good Chinese restaurants like Grand Sichuan and Congee Village.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Just to be clear, I don't think you can actually get a whole fish at the restaurants where Lo, Redding, and Moonen cook -- though I may be wrong. But I think they were cited for general seafood expertise, not accomplishment at serving this particular dish. The Lee brothers don't really cover the NY restaurant beat -- they tend to write about travel and home-cooking.

But to the point of the question, I do agree that there are quite a few Chinese restaurants that are great at cooking whole fish. My issue is that I've rarely had top-tier product at these places. My personal experience with fish kept alive in tanks is that they aren't as good as fish that have been killed and cleaned on the boat, iced immediately, and delivered with relative swiftness. And I haven't been impressed with the handling that whole fish receive in the Chinese markets (or by the Chinese suppliers at the Fulton Fish Market when I visited). That's not to say I think the product is bad. In my book a second-tier fish is still delicious, especially when prepared with garlic, ginger, soy and other flavor enhancing aromatics. For the money, a Chinese restaurant is probably your best bet for a tasty and well-prepared whole fish.

In my experience, though, the best fish being served in New York are at the restaurants like Le Bernardin, Sea Grill and Bouley that do a lot of business with day-boat fishermen out of Chatham and other regional fisheries. And of course the Japanese restaurants tend to be effective at moving fish around the world at a rapid pace. But those places tend not to serve whole fish -- though there are exceptions.

Probably the best whole fish I've had have been at Nobu Next Door, where the product is as you would expect at a top Japanese restaurant and they use a dedicated steam-oven that blasts the heck out of the fish with a heavy flow of steam (I'm not sure if pressure-cooking is involved as well), which really preserves flavor, color and texture. They also offer the fish deep-fried, and I've said a few times that I think the Nobu restaurants are the best in town at frying -- something for which they've never particularly been recognized.

The other big category of whole-fish restaurants that comes to mind is the Greek/Turkish category. The endemic problem here is overcooking, but with sufficient argumentation you can sometimes get a non-overcooked fish. Probably the best examples I've had have been at Milos, but that's sort of its own category. In general, though, I like the Greek fish places because you can inspect the fish and check their eyes. Not a 100% foolproof method, but it helps.

Unfortunately, many of the fish that I consider to be the most delicious simply aren't practical for whole-fish cooking. I mean, you're not going to order a 15-pound Chatham cod in a restaurant. You're not even going to cook it in your oven at home, no matter how many guests you have, because it probably won't fit and you really need to butcher a fish like that in order to take full advantage of it. I don't even think you could get a whole head-on cod if you tried -- they usually chop the heads off on the boat to save weight and space. But even when you get down into more manageable fish like salmon and char, these fish aren't appropriate for 1-2 people.

One other place springs to mind: Esca. There are usually a couple of whole fish available there, and they tend to be excellent.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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City Hall and Le Zinc (both on Reade Street) do great grilled whole fish. CH always has one on the menu; LeZ very often. It's been a while since I've had one at either place, but both were cooked perfectly, plain.

Thalassa also does fish whole, on a price-per-pound basis. Have not had it, but would trust them.

Chinese: a couple of years ago, on our only visit to date, we had an exquisite steamed bass at 27 Sunrise. The usual soy sauce/scallion/ginger version.

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Esca does a whole salt-baked branzino for two that is excellent. They bring it to the table still under the salt crust, and then fillet/debone/serve tableside. Served with nothing more than extra virgin olive oil and a slice of lemon.

I think Milos also makes a damn good whole fish. Certainly in competition for best in the city, and perhaps the odds-on favorite. Extremely expensive, though.

--

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Here's a from-out-in-left-field endorsement for Bravo Gianni, 230 East 63 St. Th chef/owner is a curmudgeon but an extremely capable chef; I eat out frequently, both for my job and on my own nickel and I've seldom been in a restaurant that attracts so many celebrities as this off-the-radar screen eatery.

Gianni is fanatically demanding when it comes to produce and raw material; more than once I'm seen him boot out an offending purveyor proffering what he deemed to be substandard product. Try a roast whole snapper or sea bass here; it's one of the city's best.

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27 Division Street. Although, for all I know, it could be gone now. We tried it because somebody on Chowhound whose taste I trusted raved about the dim sum there, and while we didn't have dim sum, we had a really great meal, all live out of the tanks. Warning: it was on the expensive side, but oh man was it good! Really, that steamed fish was one of the best I've ever had.

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I think Milos also makes a damn good whole fish. Certainly in competition for best in the city, and perhaps the odds-on favorite. Extremely expensive, though.

I was about to mention Milos, to which I've never been (but always wanted to go). Everyone says it's expensive, but, like, approximately how much are you in for per person?

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