Note: This is a review under chef Eric Hara, who is no longer with the restaurant as of May 2012. The restaurant closed in March 2013. The other restaurant mentioned in the review, 9 Restaurant, had closed a while earlier.
A month ago, the Post ran an article about the burgeoning Hell’s Kitchen restaurant scene—once desolate, lately an embarrassment of riches.
When you think about formerly downtrodden neighborhoods that became dining destinations, usually it took one major success story that made the area a magnet for the food wonks: Montrachet in Tribeca, 71 Clinton Fresh Food on the Lower East Side, to give but two examples.
Hell’s Kitchen doesn’t yet have that kind of restaurant, as far as I can tell. (I don’t count Esca, which is geographically in Hell’s Kitchen but functionally in the Theater District.) What it has is a passel of new places that make it worth traveling the extra long block or two from Eighth Avenue. Perhaps, from one of these, the breakout hit will come.
Chef Eric Hara owns two of these, the adjacent and recently-opened 9 Restaurant and Pier 9 on Ninth Avenue between 53rd and 54th Streets. Hara has bounced around a bit, but his solid background includes three years as executive chef at David Burke Townhouse and a shorter stint at Burke’s Fishtail.
A move to the Oak Room at the Plaza was ill-advised, but it’s surely not Hara’s fault that the owners took the space in a more frivolous direction. A couple of brief detours brought him finally to Ninth Avenue, where he is chef and partner in these two similar restaurants.
Both 9 Restaurant and Pier 9 are relatively informal and inexpensive, with brunch menus for the weekend crowd, outdoor cafés in nice weather, and plenty of space at the bar. At a recent opening party, I found Pier 9 more attractive, and its all-seafood menu more compelling. I didn’t think I’d have the time to try both, so I made a reservation at Pier 9.
Full disclosure: I was there at the publicist’s invitation, and although I paid for my meal, I was charged much less than full price. (I show the à la carte prices in parentheses below, where I know them, but we paid a flat $60 per head.)
Jalapeño and jack cheese biscuits with honey butter (above right), served on a warm skillet, were a perfect start to the meal.
Half-a-dozen fresh, briney oysters ($17; above left) were served raw, in the usual style. A Warm Giant Brady Oyster ($8; above right) was dusted with yuzu, scallions, and tempura flakes. I have never seen this on a restaurant menu, and google is silent as to the identity of the species. Such a remarkable specimen, probably eight inches long, must be seen to be believed.
A ceviche tasting ($18; left top) included, from left to right, Shrimp Tacos with tomatilla and cucumber salsa; Big Eye Tuna Tartare with yuzu, radish, and pears; and Scottish Salmon with orange, pickled chilli, and citrus oil. The salmon was the most successful of these, with its unexpected citrus tang, followed by the shrimp tacos. The tuna tartare was a bit flat, as was a Razor Clam Ceviche ($13; left bottom) with Tuscan olive oil, cilantro mint, and Arbequina olives.
We didn’t much care for Crab & Shitake Mushroom Arancini in spicy tartar sauce ($13; above middle), which were on the greasy side. But Lobster “Mac N Cheese” ($12; above right) might be one of the restaurant’s instant hits.
Entrées, as in many seafood restaurants these days, are either composed or “simply prepared.” We were a shade less fond of the composed dishes. Sourdough Crusted Sea Bass ($25; above, far left) with prawn, mussel, and clam in a ciopino broth had too many ingredients in competition with one another. Tuna au Poivre ($28; above, middle) was a tad too salty.
But a Grilled Whole Branzino ($28; above right) with baby bok choy was terrific.
Halibut (above left) came with a choice of three sauces (above right): green curry and shitake mushroom (the best of the group), lemon, tuscan olive oil & capers, and verjus emulsion. It seemed to us that a couple of the sauces were too heavy for the fish, which couldn’t quite stand up to them.
Both desserts we tried will work for you if you’re in a playful mood: a Rice Krispie Candy Bar with mascarpone ice cream (above left) and a Pretzel & Tapioca Pudding Sundae (above right).
There were no unsuccessful dishes per se, but a few were (to our taste) a bit over-salted or over-fried, and in some instances we felt the chef would be better off letting superior ingredients shine without as much interference.
Both restaurants, Pier 9 and 9 Restaurant, were doing a brisk bar and sidewalk café business on a Wednesday evening, but could use some more patronage to fill the large space in back. Pier 9, especially, is an appealing space, done in an urban seaside motif. Nowadays, it’s fun to dine on Ninth Avenue.
Pier 9 (802 Ninth Avenue between 53rd & 54th Streets, Hell’s Kitchen)