The John Dory Oyster Bar should come with a disclaimer: all similarities to the outfit formerly named the John Dory are purely coincidental.
Once upon a time, chef April Bloomfield and business partner Ken Friedman opened a damned fine restaurant called the John Dory in far Southwest Chelsea, on the same block as Del Posto, Colicchio & Sons, and Morimoto. It got mostly favorable reviews (two stars from both Frank Bruni and yours truly).
In a move that no one saw coming, the restaurant closed after just nine months. Friedman gave multiple explanations for why it failed. (We’ve heard others that we can’t repeat.) In essence, he says that the business model counted on a heavy all-day walk-in trade, which is absent in that neighborhood. It’s an understandable mistake, coming from a team whose other places—the Spotted Pig, the Rusty Knot, and the Breslin—don’t take reservations.
Now called an Oyster Bar, the John Dory has re-opened in a corner of the Ace Hotel, the same boutique that’s home to the Breslin. Located just south of Madison Square Garden, Penn Station, and the Herald Square shopping district, it should have no trouble attracting the foot traffic that was lacking in the old location.
Some of the old Dory’s over-the-top fish décor made the trip upstream, er, uptown, but it is done far more tastefully here. With high ceilings and panoramic picture windows, it no longer looks like, as Frank Bruni put it, “Mr. Friedman . . . went on eBay, typed in ‘fish décor’ and bought and made use of everything that popped up.”
But some of the changes are less salutary. The seating—all bar stools—is so cramped that it must surely be at the legal limit. It leaves servers with hardly any space to maneuver. At 6:30 p.m. on a Saturday evening, I got one of the few places available, a window stool with my back to the room, looking out on what must be one of Manhattan’s most charmless intersections.
The limited menu, which changes daily, is now all bar snacks, raw fish, and small plates. Most individual items are $15 or less, but a hungry diner will need several of them to put together a full meal. Friedman and Bloomfield have already proven that they can serve real entrées in a casual, no-reservations setting. The loss of the original Dory’s more serious cooking is a real disappointment.
I loved the Oyster Pan Roast with Uni Crostini (above left), even if there was no “pan.” This is one of the few dishes retained from the old John Dory, and with good reason. But the Lobster and Onion Panade (above right) was too bland—the first time I’ve ever said that of an April Bloomfield dish—and I didn’t detect any lobster. It turned out to be a not-very-good French Onion Soup without the cheese.
There’s a fine wine list here, but I had two very good cocktails, the Spring Forward (Gin, Vermouth, Spring Onion) and the Fall Back (Applejack, Rye, Amaro Nonino, Vermouth, Peychaud).
The staff are friendly and attitude-free, but they struggle to keep up. The cocktails took too long to come out, and there were other awkward waits. I was puzzled by the kitchen’s decision to send out my two dishes simultaneously, although this could have been the server’s error (i.e., not making clear that I was a solo party). The server might also have pointed out that both were soups, which I had not realized. I would probably have ordered something else.
The John Dory Oyster Bar is an excessive reaction to the failure of the original John Dory. I fully understand the desire to be in a neighborhood with customers, and the no-reservations service model is fine with me: I love the Spotted Pig and the Breslin, both of which work the same way. But the menu is not as appealing as their other places, and right now the service is too frantic.
With April Bloomfield in charge of the kitchen, you know that it will probably get better.
John Dory Oyster Bar (1196 Broadway at 29th St. in the Ace Hotel, West Midtown)
Service: no stars