Cruising the Tribeca Riviera for Purely Shellfish Reasons

On a recent warm evening, I stopped for dinner at L’Oursin, a new seafood bistro in Tribeca. Its French doors were opened onto the sidewalk, where a blackboard had been set up, advertising happy hour and chalked with specials. The restaurant, next to Popeyes on Chambers Street, could almost have been in some tacky beach town, tucked among the usual huddle of shops selling postcards, T-shirts and flip-flops. Instead of offering a view of a glittering harbor dotted with boats, L’Oursin looks out onto a Blimpie, a hip-hop clothing store and an African souvenirs shop, all of which were closed. But still, it reminded me of those summer seafood places decked out with fishermen’s nets and captains’ wheels that you duck into expecting little more than greasy fish and chips–and then are shocked to find that the food is really good.

And the food at L’Oursin is really good. The restaurant is owned by Max Bernard, proprietor of the popular three-star Park Bistro on lower Park Avenue, who says he’s always dreamed of opening a simple, unpretentious seafood brasserie serving oysters, grilled fish and soupe de poisson, like the ones along the coast in the South of France, where he grew up. So he took over two floors of an 1890’s building that for years was a Blarney Castle (in the same family as the once ubiquitous Blarney Stone). And even though it’s been open for barely two months, the place has already acquired a patina. On the ground floor, an enormous mirrored mahogany bar runs almost the length of the long, narrow room, opposite the former steam table. Where once there were steaming trays of corned beef and cabbage, now there’s a raw bar piled high with ice and shellfish. Upstairs, the bar is smaller and the dining room has many more tables covered with blue-and-white checked oilcloths printed with tiny anchors. Old bistro posters hang on the bare brick walls, and French pop songs play on the sound system.

There is something instantly amiable about L’Oursin. When we walked in, it was dark and cool, and waiters and waitresses in striped jerseys were serving drinks. (They may have been dressed like French fishermen, but most of them seemed to be Polish or Russian.) A pretty, dark-haired hostess came forward to greet us. “Oh, my God. I thought at first you were my boss’ wife!” she said, looking at me with relief. “I would have been so nervous serving her!”

I’m sure the boss’ wife would have been as happy as we were with our hostess, who showed us to a table by the downstairs window. A basketball game was on the TV over the bar, and my son strained to see how the Lakers were doing. “I’ll keep my eye on the score for you folks,” she said, handing us menus. A few minutes later she was back: “Just to let you know, it’s 30-17, Lakers.”

The mostly French wine list has around 60 bottles, with quite a few from Provence (I’d like to see more, in fact), chosen to go with the simple, robust food. They are very reasonably priced, with many choices between $20 and $30. After a glass of wine, the next thing you want in a restaurant called L’Oursin is, of course, sea urchins. As far as I’m concerned, they’re up there with oysters, truffles and caviar in the firmament of the world’s great food, the coral-colored roe scooped out of the fierce, bristly shells with a small spoon, needing only a splash of lemon–if that. One of my friends looked dreamy at the prospect, remembering the first time he had sea-urchin roe in Paris, slathered on toasted baguette covered with butter and garlic. I recalled discovering them years ago at Balducci’s, packed in a small wooden carton and imported from Japan. They cost 10 bucks, and I ate them on the sidewalk straight out of the box, like chocolates.

We decided to order a plateau de fruits de mer for two with sea urchins ($60 plain, $85 with lobster). But our waitress shook her head. “Sorry,” she said. “They’re reproducing.”

Having become so used to eating anything we want year-round (including oysters in months without an “R” in them), we were shocked to discover they weren’t in season. If you want sea urchins at L’Oursin, you have to come between October and April. But the plateau de fruits de mer, though simple, made up for the disappointment with its generous helpings of very fresh shrimp, clams and oysters. Apart from a roast chicken and steak frites, the menu here is all seafood. You can begin with a platter of calamari sautéed with tomatoes, garlic and black olives, a true Niçoise dish, assertive and hearty. Seared shrimp with their heads on–sweet and slightly spicy–arrived sizzling on a metal platter. Petite friture was great: a pile of fresh, crispy whitebait in a light batter. Eating this makes you crave the beach. The brandade de morue was a creamy purée made with shredded fresh and dried cod (but not too much potato), served with croutons spread with olive paste.

Is there a menu in town that doesn’t have farm-raised trout, sea bass or salmon? It’s so boring. (French food critic Jean Le Coquet once wrote in Le Figaro of his disappointment with farm-raised salmon, declaring it no “hard-bellied athlete” but with flesh like an “eiderdown coverlet.” He concluded, “Salmon are like men: too soft a life is not good for them.”) Instead, L’Oursin has an interesting Mediterranean selection that includes dorade, loup de mer (bass), meaty, firm red mullet, pageot (a rock fish) and John Dory. The fish get a bracing charcoal flavor from the grill and are served with a choice of three sauces: vierge (butter and lemon), red-pepper coulis and a green purée made with basil, spinach, pickles and capers that needed a hit of garlic.

There was no lack of garlic in the aioli that came with snowy chunks of poached codfish, garnished traditionally with halved hard-boiled eggs. L’Oursin also makes phenomenal mashed potatoes using olive oil instead of butter, as well as good, thick French fries. Hot, crisp panisses (chickpea fritters) looked like hockey pucks but were soft inside, with a faint taste of cumin. You can also get side orders of ratatouille and red rice from the Camargue.

For dessert, the poached peach in thyme syrup didn’t have much taste. The crème caramel was superb, but the lemon tart had a tough, leathery crust. Crèpes, neatly folded over puréed berries and sprinkled with powdered sugar, are a better choice. The chocolate mousse cake, filled with pistachio crème brûlée, was delectable.

During dinner one night, I tried not to stare at the woman at the next table. Voluptuous, tanned and muscular, she belonged in a Helmut Newton photograph with her cropped bleached hair, black halter top and white shorts, drinking red wine and smoking a cigarette. Eating at L’Oursin, you really do feel you’re at a beachside restaurant on the Riviera instead of beached on Chambers Street.

L’OURSIN

* *

110 Chambers Street (between West Broadway and Church)

233-5113

Dress: Casual

Noise level: Fine

Wine list: Mostly French, reasonably priced

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Main courses, lunch and dinner, $9.50 to $24

Lunch: Seven days, noon to 3 p.m.

Dinner: Sunday to Wednesday, 5 to 11 p.m.; Thursday to Saturday, 5 p.m. To midnight

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor Cruising the Tribeca Riviera for Purely Shellfish Reasons