The raw bar downstairs at BLT Fish
Note: BLT Fish “closed for renovations” in July 2014. We shall see if it ever re-opens.
My last visit to BLT Fish left me so utterly disgusted that I vowed to take a long break before I would visit another BLT restaurant. The fish was excellent — how could it not be? — but the service was risible.
In the meantime, Laurent Tourondel continued to expand his BLT empire, with the widely panned BLT Burger here in New York, the forthcoming BLT Market in the former Atelier space, and clones of BLT Steak in several cities. BLT Fish lost its Michelin star this year, confirming the generally held view that Tourondel was too over-extended to mind the store.
Despite all of that, I decided to revisit BLT Fish the other night with my mom, who is visiting from Detroit. This was, by far, the most pleasant of all my visits to the various BLT establishments. The food was superb, and we were blessed with a four-top table set apart from the noisiest part of the restaurant. Service was solid, though this must be taken in the context of the comparatively low grade of service in Tourondel’s restaurants.
The bread amuses at BLT Fish
We began with a couple of bread courses. First came crackers with a delicious tuna spread. As usual, the number of crackers was about half as many as needed—a fairly consistent screw-up at the BLT establishments. On the other hand, they are so justifiably proud of their luscious warm bread rolls that they even provide the recipe (see the little “BLT” brochure in the photo).
Grilled Sardines / Caponata / Aged Xeres Vinegar / Basil
The waitstaff at the BLT restaurants are black-belt masters of plumping up the bill. Our server advised that the whole fish we had ordered would take about 25 minutes, so she strongly urged us to order an appetizer to tide us over. Grilled sardines ($12) came perched on crisp toasted bread, but for a dish so likely to be shared, why were there just three of them?
Sea Salt Crusted New Zealand Pink Snapper
The menu offers a number of whole fish, most of them suitable for sharing. They are priced by the pound, which means you really don’t know how much you’ve signed up for until the end. We chose the Pink Snapper grilled in sea salt. After dinner, we were put out of our suspense: it weighed 2.188 pounds, which at $35 per pound came to $76.58. Aren’t you glad you asked?
The fish was presented tableside, then whisked away to be filleted. I would have preferred to watch them do it, though given the tight spacing of the tables, perhaps this would have been impractical. Any of my numerous complaints about the restaurant were completely erased once we started eating: it was simply the most sweet, succulent, tender fish imaginable. Two wonderful sauces came with it, which I’m afraid I can’t recall, but they were pitch-perfect accompaniments.
A two-pound fish is a lot for two people to eat, but when it’s this good you find a way to finish it. Had we bulked up on appetizers and side dishes, as our server advised, the snapper might have sufficed for three. When we thought we were done, the server returned to serve the tender, delicate “cheeks” from the fish head. It was an impressive encore.
At BLT restaurants, vegetables and starches are always à la carte. Our sever advised ordering two or three of these, which at $8–9 apiece can quickly add up. I was prepared for this bad advice, based on past visits. Although the side dishes are uniformly terrific, you almost never finish them. One is normally enough. We had the Sautéed Garlic Spinach ($9), which was just right.
After dinner, the server brought a small plate of petits-fours. But why only three of them, for a table of two people? A large clump of green cotton candy was too cloyingly sweet to be tolerated for more than a couple of bites.
Many other aspects of the service remain peculiar. The menu is a cheap, loose sheet of paper, which I’m sure doesn’t last much more than a day. So why must there be a separate sheet of paper listing the raw bar selections and daily specials? And why is only one copy of that sheet distributed, when there are two diners? We observed this at other tables, so I know it wasn’t just a mistake.
About the wine list there can be no complaint. Here, as at the other BLT restaurants, they take the wine program seriously. We were perfectly happy with a $45 bottle of Beaujolais, which was served (as it should be) slightly below room temperature.
With a critic installed at the Times who positively abhores traditional formality, I suppose Laurent Tourondel has perfectly captured the mood of the age. Even Frank Bruni couldn’t quite forgive the conceit of sacrificing a restroom for an open kitchen, one of the more boneheaded restaurant design decisions of recent years. But Bruni was smitten with the food, awarding three stars. For food alone, that is the correct verdict. You have to be willing to put up with some annoying conceits, but on this occasion it was well worth it.
BLT Fish (21 W. 17th Street between 5th & 6th Avenues, Flatiron District)