“His name is Otto,” said the waiter, setting down a two-pound red snapper in front of us.
Otto drew stares from neighboring tables, as well he might. The fish was served upright, curving around the plate like a Chinese dragon, with round, vacant eyes and a ferocious grimace on its face.
Whole fish and lobster are sold by the pound at BLT Fish, Laurent Tourondel’s new restaurant in the Flatiron district, and they come with a choice of sauces and vegetables on the side so customers can mix and match as they please. This style of dining was first introduced at Tom Colicchio’s Craft, and it’s also the philosophy behind Mr. Tourondel’s other restaurant, BLT Steak, which opened just over a year ago on East 57th Street. A Frenchman’s take on the traditional American steakhouse, it was an instant hit. But Mr. Tourondel made his name in New York cooking fish at the three-star restaurant Cello on the Upper East Side, and now he’s returned to his first love.
BLT Fish is two restaurants in one. The ground floor is a seafood shack, and it feels like high season in Maine, packed with a young crowd swigging bottles of beer and cocktails with names like Shark Bite or Squid Ink. Oyster-shuckers in white caps work in the middle of the room, which is done up with white wainscoting and open brick walls and hung with trophy fish. The catch of the day is scrawled on blackboards, and the menu includes New England specialties such as clam chowder, lobster rolls, crabcakes and pie à la mode.
Upstairs is the grown-ups’ restaurant. A glass elevator whisks you to the third floor, to an elegant, understated, airy dining room with a skylight. The walls are covered with pearl-gray suede and lined with gray leather banquettes and walnut wood tables, set with woven metal placemats and votive candles.
At the back of the room is an open kitchen. It looks like a stage set. Fourteen cooks, all dressed in chefs’ hats and unbelievably spotless whites, move noiselessly around the stoves as though their movements had been choreographed-there’s no cursing or yelling or banging of pots and pans. Mr. Tourondel himself-tall, portly and looking positively benign for a chef in his kitchen during rush hour-presides over the front counter, inspecting the finished plates under four chrome heat lamps suspended from the ceiling on white corkscrew cords. Every so often, he stops to receive an air kiss or a handshake from a fan. Above his head, bundles of dried herbs are lined up in a neat, art-directed row, and on a shelf in the back, large glass jars-filled with a strange, luminescent green fuzz and looking like projects in a science lab- provide the one carefully orchestrated splash of color in this scene.
At BLT Steak, you start the meal with popovers. At BLT Fish, Mr. Tourondel serves cheddar-chive biscuits topped with sea-salted butter and maple syrup. They’re so good you have to be made of steel to refuse a second round.
He can’t resist sending out some fancy stuff, too, in the form of the soi-disant “amuses.” I counted five in one dinner, and that’s not including my companion’s, which were different from mine. Along with the biscuits, you get a playful dish of crusty fried rock shrimp with blue cheese, served with little wooden sticks. White anchovies garnished the first ramps of the season; china eggs open up to reveal a creamy mixture inside: soft scrambled eggs with caviar and clams. There’s even a “pre-dessert” amuse, this one served in a real eggshell: strawberry–red wine sorbet.
The wine list of around 300 bottles is excellent, with many interesting and unusual wines (including little-known Basque wines, for example) chosen by wine director Fred Dexheimer. They’re fairly priced, with many choices in the lower range. There are also 20 wines by the glass.
As a first course, squares of raw hamachi are lined up on a long dish and bathed in a citrus-herb vinaigrette oil with slivered radishes-so fresh and clean I could’ve eaten it twice over. The grilled octopus salad in an orange-Bergamot oil vinaigrette gave my jaws a good workout one evening. But I had no complaints with the Dungeness crab mixed with avocado, topped with a crab claw, served in a tart grapefruit vinaigrette. Seared bay scallops are combined with port-poached figs, fourme d’ambert and toasted walnuts. Who would ever think of such a combination? A brilliant idea. I also liked the tuna tartare, which had a surprisingly spicy kick to it. Alaskan black cod is heavenly, topped with a miso glaze. The Tasmanian trout, a thick, pink chunk like salmon, was remarkably fresh and cooked perfectly, very nice with the tomato tarragon hollandaise. Tuna arrived cut in rare steakhouse slices, good with the soy-citrus wasabi and curry lemongrass sauces.
Side dishes, many of which are served in cute little enameled casseroles, include salt-crusted baked Jerusalem artichokes topped with a butter made with crème fraîche and truffle oil, tender braised celery stalks and frilly hen-of-the-woods mushrooms sautéed in butter. The little brown square pillows of pommes soufflés are also delicious.
Desserts include an endearing chocolate praline cake topped with marshmallows and chocolate batons, served with a scoop of coffee-Cointreau ice cream-a kid’s dish for grown-ups. I didn’t like the bitter almond chocolate soufflé, which was swamped with amaretto. But the caramelized meringue topped with passion fruit and served with a banana-and-passion-fruit sorbet is lovely, as are the delicate dried-apricot bread pudding and the lime mille feuilles.
After dinner, along with a platter of chocolate truffles and doughnuts, you are given a jar of that fuzzy green stuff displayed in the kitchen. It’s cotton candy.
All round, BLT Fish is a delightful restaurant. Mr. Tourondel is not only a wonderful chef, he certainly knows how to charm.