East Village Siren’s Call:
The Mermaid Inn Beckons
The closest thing to a lobster roll that you can get in the part of southwestern England I’m writing from is a sausage roll. The medieval market town of Marlborough in Wiltshire is not near the sea-it’s surrounded by cornfields slashed with crop circles, rolling hills carved with prehistoric white horses, and giant stones that were hauled here thousands of years ago, God knows how or why. But instead of pondering the mysteries of this glorious landscape, I’m thinking about the Mermaid Inn.
The Mermaid Inn’s lobster roll is made with a toasted and buttered brioche instead of a hot-dog bun, and filled with chunks of freshly cooked lobster mixed with a homemade mayonnaise and seasoned with diced red onion, celery, chives and cracked white pepper. Purists, sneer all you like-this is a great sandwich! Until this seafood bistro opened three months ago in the East Village, the closest thing the neighborhood had to a lobster roll was a knish.
The lobster roll is just one of the simple dishes Mermaid Inn does impeccably well. Their menu is not fancy. The seafood, reflecting influences from the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean, is classic and accessible: fried oysters and clams, fresh sardines, seared sea scallops and a nice piece of cod that makes its appearance at your table looking like what it is-a piece of cod, not a piece of sculpture.
The restaurant is a casual, neighborly place owned by Jimmy Bradley and Danny Abrams, the partners behind the Red Cat in Chelsea and the Harrison in Tribeca, and the chef is Mike Price, who was sous-chef at the Harrison.
The décor could not be less Lower East Side. The place looks more like an upmarket seafood shack in Maine or a restaurant in the Hamptons, even though the view from its white mullion windows is not of the harbor, but the street. The front section is done up in black and white, with a bar on one side and maritime charts on the wall, along with a photograph of the Kennedys stepping into a boat at Hyannisport. There’s a small raw bar at the entrance and dozens of oysters from the East and West coasts. Past the crowded bar, the “head” and the kitchen (where dishes are piling up in the window), you come to a dining room that looks like a tavern and has a small garden in the back. There are exposed brick walls and weathered beams, porcelain lamps and plain wooden tables set with candles. It’s noisy, and the hardwood floor does a good job of keeping up the decibel level. If you don’t want to wait for your own table, you can opt to sit at the communal one in the center. It’s so loud you won’t be able to hear a word anyone else is saying, and there’s no danger of their hearing you.
Mermaid Inn doesn’t take reservations (except for parties of six to eight), so when you walk in, the hostess puts your name on a list and suggests that you have a drink at the bar. The inconvenience of this is lessened by the appearance of Ivan, a tall, handsome and exceedingly charming bartender. “Very dangerous,” said one of my friends, who was a little put out when we were seated quite quickly and she couldn’t linger at the bar with her wine. “I could have just leaned over and kissed him!”
Instead, she ordered a plate of Prince Edward Island oysters with a chili lime mignonette. The chef describes this wonderful concoction as a gazpacho of sorts; he makes a purée of tomato, jalapeno, cucumber, red onion and cilantro and hangs it in cheese cloth (rather like David Bouley’s famous clear tomato soup) so the juice collects in a bowl underneath. He mixes the juice with champagne and rice vinegars, lemon juice, chopped peppers and cilantro. It’s spicy yet delicate, one of the few mignonette sauces that I really liked, giving the oysters a subtle kick without overwhelming them.
Spanish gazpacho also provides the inspiration for the skate, which is seared crisp and served on frisée and comes with a refreshing chilled mix of grapes, almonds, cucumber and red onion, chopped up with bread soaked in milk.
Clam fritters are made with savory cake batter mixed with minced clams and seasoned with beer, clam juice and onion. They’re a little bready but good, and they come with a lively lemon caper aïoli that has a touch of anchovy and red wine. The fried oysters are even better; they arrive at the table very hot, with a Savoy cabbage cole slaw and a pool of tomato butter.
Mr. Price travels to Greece for the salad he serves with plump Portuguese sardines, hoping that people in the East Village will develop a taste for this fish served fresh (many people still seem to think they’re born of spontaneous generation in the can). The sardines are arranged on a bed of cucumber, tomato and red onion with feta, black olives and fresh oregano. If you’ve never discovered fresh sardines, this is the place to start. The barbecued shrimp are also delicious, done like Louisiana blackened fish, tossed with cayenne pepper, paprika and thyme before being grilled and served in a balsamic vinaigrette.
The salmon couldn’t be simpler or more summery, served on a bed of toasted corn, Yukon golds and cherry tomatoes with a beurre blanc mixed with fresh basil purée. The diver scallops, which come with braised cabbage laced with bacon and horseradish, are plump and juicy-they’re a revelation. And the whole grilled dorade is stuffed with thyme and served over a bed of wilted greens moistened with a shallot vinaigrette. It’s as light and simple as you could wish for in the dog days of summer.
The well-chosen wine list offers around 35 bottles, and they’re priced at just $15 above wholesale.
There is no dessert menu. Instead, at the end of dinner you get an espresso cup filled with a dark chocolate pudding, and with the bill you get a Chinese fortune-telling fish made of red plastic. The way it curls in your palm indicates whether you are passionate, indifferent or in love. My friend-the one who took to Ivan behind the bar-put it in her palm. “It’s a defective fish if it doesn’t curl up,” she said. It curled. Like everything else at Mermaid Inn, it works.