Even though it was a Monday night barely two weeks after the attack, the dining room at Citarella, a new seafood restaurant at Rockefeller Center, was packed. At a table across the way, a food critic swirled his glass and sniffed the wine, holding it up to the light and nodding his approval at the waiter. Four large white plates, each containing an amuse guele the size of a fingernail, arrived at our table, prompting the inevitable jokes.
“I can’t handle the sheer bulk,” said a friend, gazing down at a tiny disc, which proved to be made of salmon and beet with basil.
“Try to make it last a while,” said his wife.
Like other New Yorkers, we were trying to make something else last a while, too: a few minutes during which we weren’t dwelling on the recent horrific events. One of my companions, a sculptor, finds it hard to get back to work, all the more since he spends his days alone in the studio. “Just getting out and seeing people in restaurants having a normal evening makes a difference,” he said.
The warmth of the reception at Citarella makes a difference, not to mention the food. The restaurant is owned by Joseph Gurerra, who has the famous grocery store of the same name on the Upper West Side. As anyone who has walked by there knows, the fanciful seafood displays are as attention-grabbing as a diamond necklace in a Tiffany’s window. For years, the little building on the edge of Rockefeller Center was a saloon called Hurley’s, a defiant holdout against the monolithic development of the area and a popular after-work bar. Like P.J. Clarke’s, which performs the same role on the other side of town, it was painted red.
Now the building is limestone white. And instead of old New York, the sea is the theme. Small portholes are set here and there in the walls, with shells and clusters of coral displayed like jewelry against an aquarium-blue background. Designed by David Rockwell, the restaurant has a large bar downstairs, with picture windows overlooking 49th Street and a six-seat sushi bar that operates from noon to midnight. The polished tables are cobalt, while deep-blue mohair fabric covers the banquettes. Upstairs, the color scheme is taken not from the sea but the beach. The luminescent, double-height ivory walls are made of opaline glass beads, and the chairs are covered in coral prints. The restaurant is comfortable and civilized and, judging from the small silver sea-salt and pepper grinders on the table, it expects its customers to be civilized, too, and not slip them into their pockets on the way out.
Chef Brian Young was formerly at Pop downtown; before that he was chef de cuisine at Le Bernardin. He has put together an intriguing menu using, of course, the stellar seafood and other produce available through the Citarella stores (there is another branch in Montauk). There’s a sirloin on the menu, but apart from that, it’s devoted entirely to fish. Mr. Young does, however, like to add a little meat to some of his dishes. One of them is a sort of reverse vitello tonnato: Instead of veal with tuna sauce, he does tuna with veal sauce. The sauce is actually more of a stew, made with nuggets of osso buco, and it goes well with the thick red slices of seared fish, accompanied by a salad of meaty porcini, lemon and Brussels-sprout leaves. Turbot (like sole, “all profile,” as Proust once said) was matched with oxtail that had been slowly braised in red wine. It would have been delicious had the fish not been overcooked.
A couple of Mr. Young’s first courses are Japanese-inspired, such as the shaved geoduck (pronounced “gooey duck”) clam, a giant clam whose clean, clear taste has the tang of the sea. It’s thinly sliced and tossed in a vinaigrette made from the juice of scallions and ginger, with asparagus, chives and hot pepper oil. A wonderful, mousse-like wedge of avocado comes with broiled eel and black sesame sauce. Fried oysters in a light coating of brioche crumbs are perfect with a rémoulade made with sea urchin, fennel and caviar. Pleasingly crisp feuille de brick rolls shaped like long cigars are stuffed with basil and shrimp, the plate dotted with diced cucumber and melon.
But some dishes miss the mark, such as a salad of shaved pecorino on frisée with roast plums and slivers of artichokes (replacing hearts of palm one night). “It works as a structure,” said the sculptor who’d ordered it, “but not as a taste.” Indeed, I couldn’t figure out the logic behind the combination of ingredients. The corn and vidalia onion soup, laced with lump crab, was a disappointment as well, too sweet and sugary.
But these caveats aside (and a note on the menu does say that the restaurant, which opened a month ago, is in preview, currently offering a 15-percent discount on lunch), Mr. Young’s food is compelling. A pristine wedge of cod comes with a confit of eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes (a dish called imam bayaldi, meaning “the imam fainted”-presumably because it was so good), and a subtle basil and white-anchovy sauce. Snapper is served with silken cauliflower purée and white truffle oil; moist, perfectly grilled branzino is paired with braised fennel, gnocchi and sage.
Desserts, made by pastry chef William Yosses, who has worked at Bouley Bakery, end the meal on a very high note; there isn’t a loser among them. A lemon-raspberry soufflé in an emerald-green verbena sauce is intensified by a fabulous strawberry sorbet. Elderflower parfait, made with whipped cream, sabayon custard, meringue and pistachios, comes with a rich peach compote. Fig napoleon is served with a mint-infused tangerine sauce and thick fig molasses. Apple (AAPL) “conversation” consists of a pastry shell layered with apples sautéed in Calvados and topped with Granny Smith chips. Warm vanilla cake is paired with the richest vanilla ice cream you’ve ever tasted (12 beans, but who’s counting?). And the chocolate dessert is a jasmine tea–scented ganache topped with thin chocolate leaves shimmering with gold, accompanied by a milk-chocolate sorbet and chunks of frozen mint syrup.
During dinner, we were so absorbed in what we were eating that, for a while at least, we didn’t think about the state of the world. Citarella offers terrific food and friendly service in comfortable, even luxurious surroundings. Who could ask for more?