Dining out with Moira Hodgson

A Fresh Face in Tribeca

Lives Up to Its Name

“Is this place done?” One of my friends stared at the two blurry color blow-ups of part of a seascape that were pinned to the wall with thumbtacks. We had just sat down to dinner at Fresh, a new seafood restaurant in Tribeca, which had been open for only a couple weeks. Normally I give restaurants more time before reviewing them (after all, they don’t get to do previews or out-of-town runs like Broadway shows before the critics come rolling in). But when a kitchen gets itself as quickly under control as it has here, what’s the point in waiting? Taste the fried Ipswich clams the chef sends out heaped in a napkin with a citrus mayonnaise on the side; or the bluefin kobe tuna belly, which your knife cuts like butter; or the creamy salt cod and smoked haddock rillettes, and you won’t care whether the seascapes on the wall are tacked-up posters or paintings by Turner.

Fresh used to be a steakhouse called Tribeca Prime, but now the ground-floor loft space has been transformed into a glorified seafood-shack-by-the-sea with a subtle nautical theme and a vaguely 50’s feel, minus the fishermen’s nets and lobster pots. The room and its Greek-revival pillars are painted a hard, shiny gray-blue, with alcoves done in shades of sandy brown and cobalt. Wooden panels float like sails rigged across the ceiling. There are French doors opening onto the street, a long bar on one side of the room (which will eventually get a teak top and cabinets) and an open kitchen at the back; the tables are set with white cloths and pale-blue fiberglass and aluminum chairs. The flat lighting needs to be fixed (candles wouldn’t hurt), but the room is spacious and it isn’t noisy, despite the wooden floor. The friendly staff wear pink shirts and white pants.

The name Fresh, which the restaurant renders as “fresh.” (with a lower-case F and a period), is annoying, but at least they didn’t use a question mark for punctuation. The cutesy headings on the menu are also irritating (“absence of refinement,” “panacea” and “freshet”). And the wines are listed under the headings “coastal,” “hillside” and “valley”-categories that don’t mean much. But once you get past these details, the restaurant delivers, and the fish really is fresh. Co-owners Eric Tevrow and Marc Andre Jehan are partners in Early Morning Seafood, a company operating out of Nova Scotia that supplies the city’s top restaurants (including Alain Ducasse, Le Bernardin, Gramercy Tavern and Bouley) with a daily catch. The third co-owner, Martin Burge, former chef de cuisine at Gotham Bar & Grill, is the chef, and his menu travels the world.

Fresh’s ceviche, served on a large white indented plate and topped off with a piece of avocado that’s intricately fretted like a piece of wood, is wonderful and shows off the impeccable freshness of the fish here. The deep red, chunky gazpacho gets another dimension, with the addition of crab stock, sherry vinegar, roasted garlic and roasted peppers, and is laced with chunks of jumbo lump crab, avocado and cilantro. By contrast, the New England clam chowder-made with a light briny broth, steamer clams and chunks of Yukon Gold potato (no white wine, herbs or garlic)-is as clean and pure as a Quaker meeting house. The chilled lobster roll, its filling lightly bound with a lemon mayonnaise and seasoned with diced celery and chives, comes with a heap of watercress and herb salad. It’s better than any lobster roll I’ve had in Maine.

Another great summer dish is the pan-fried soft-shell crabs. They’re crunchy but juicy inside, come piled on a salad of arugula with shell beans, and are served alongside a grilled tomato vinaigrette. The terrific fish and chips is made with moist, flaky haddock dipped in a batter flavored with stout. It’s served with a fennel coleslaw, which is so much nicer than your standard shredded cabbage.

French bistro cooking provides the inspiration for some of Mr. Burge’s dishes. He tosses halibut cheeks with frisée, smoked bacon, figs, and a balsamic vinegar and onion marmalade. I like the mix, but the cheeks are tough. The rillettes are made with salt cod, finnan haddie and boiled potatoes, which are all whipped together and then spread on croutons. Monkfish and tilefish, roasted with butter, garlic and herbs, are simply served with an unctuous crab butter over the top that makes them really rich.

Other fish get the American steakhouse treatment. The roasted prime rib of swordfish gets all the trimmings: crispy onions, creamed spinach, mashed potatoes and a veal demi-glacé, but the fish itself is a disappointment and doesn’t have much taste. One of my favorites is the “baby back ribs” of halibut, which is steamed in kelp and seasoned with sea salt and dulse. The fish is kept moist by a delicate broth that’s made from olive oil, preserved lemon, carrots and leeks. It’s a revelation.

The kobe toro is earmarked as Fresh’s signature dish. It’s a play on Japanese kobe-style beef with the classic accompaniments. In a sushi bar, this fatty tuna belly is served raw, sliced thin; so I was surprised when it arrived cooked through. But a thick piece, says Mr. Burge, is chewy unless it’s well-done. And the fish isn’t dry and tough, like regular tuna is when it’s overcooked; it’s soft and buttery, served with grated daikon radish, lemon, bitter greens and buttered rice loaded with garlic.

Pastry chef and co-owner Joseph Murphy was formerly at Lespinasse, and it shows. His desserts have a twist: They’re made up of three components, juxtaposing taste, texture and temperature. The blueberry financier is outstanding, made with yuzu curd (from a sour Japanese citrus fruit) that cuts the sweetness, a blueberry compote and a great Thai basil ice cream-the sorbets and ice creams made in-house are wonderful. The two-tone crème brûlée is also terrific, made with chocolate custard and Tahitian vanilla custard, and garnished with raspberries. Wild strawberry shortcake gets a shot of aged balsamic vinegar, strawberry juice and crème fraîche. The least successful is the roasted peach trio, which is rather doughy: peach brioche French toast, a warm peach crèpe and a white peach sorbet, with bits of peach on the plate.

As we were winding up dessert, our waiter brought out a large print of a mural, two pieces of which we had noticed on the wall. “This is how it’s going to look,” he said, pointing at the seascape. There will also be a mural of birch trees by the entrance. But in the meantime, just come here for the fish.