Laden With Rich Spoils,
Moonen Drops Anchor Uptown
Three raw scallops in their shells, shucked to order like oysters, were set before me on a long white plate. I picked one up and offered it to my companion. “Did you know the little dots around the edge of the shell are its eyes?” he asked me. In fact, I did. There are about 30 of them.
I learned about the eyes when I went scalloping in Nantucket one winter. Most people never get to see them, since by the time scallops show up on a table in a restaurant, they’re usually in a basket with a packet of tartare sauce on the side. But we were having dinner at RM, Rick Moonen’s extraordinary new seafood restaurant on the Upper East Side which, after almost a decade at Oceana, he has opened with co–executive chefs Anthony Amoroso and Matthew Accarrino. The taste of the raw scallops was offset by an unexpected combination of flavors that included grated apple, lemon, olive oil and a gremolata made with chives and crystallized ginger. It was a typical Moonen dish: clever, original and cerebral.
If your idea of a great seafood restaurant is a porch overlooking a harbor where very fresh, plain grilled fish is served to people sitting outside in bikinis, the cooking at RM may not be your style. This is not vacation food-it doesn’t need salt air or a wedge of lemon. But it does demand your attention. Pacific Northwest sturgeon with braised Swiss chard and smoked bacon comes topped with a soft poached egg. When you cut into it, the yolk oozes over the fish and melts into the sauce of capers, cornichons and shallots. Italians top all sorts of things with an egg; so do the French. But sturgeon?
Sable (black cod), a fine-textured fish with a rich, fatty flesh, becomes a form of luxury comfort food. It’s served with a purée of celery root, pickled mushrooms, a frisée salad and black truffles. Skate is sautéed in a crust made with pistachio flour. The cipollini shavings pickled in sherry vinegar that accompany it do the work normally done by capers, and parsley purée in butter (instead of black butter) adds a creamy, herbaceous note. Pistachios scattered around the plate make the dish very rich.
One evening, my attention was drawn to a sight you often see in Paris, but not in New York: a man dining alone at a fancy restaurant. He had a tan and wore his jacket sleeves pushed up. California! He drank a bottle of Gevrey-Chambertin, swirling the wine around in his glass and holding it up to the light. After each sip, he would put the glass down tenderly and stare at it some more. My companion and I got off to a bad start by ordering from the other end of the wine list-a Riesling that was much too sweet, which we replaced with an excellent bottle of white Mercurey. RM’s substantial list has many good choices for under $50, even if one of them was characterized by the waiter as “not bad.”
RM occupies the space that used to be the seafood restaurant Lure, where I had one of the worst dishes I’ve ever tasted: fried oysters with stewed eggplant. Mr. Moonen exorcises that demon by serving eggplant with sea scallops, which sounds just as bad, yet he manages to make it seem as natural a pairing as peanut butter and jelly. The scallops, which are served on saffron rice beans with thyme oil, are rolled in a mustard and fennel-seed crust, sautéed and topped with a smooth, smoky purée of charred eggplant that has an edge of sweetness to it. Taken all together, it works.
The only vestiges that remain of the previous tenant are Lure’s banquettes, which are most attractive, made of sea-green and coral crushed velour stamped with a coral motif. Beyond RM’s small bar at the entrance is the dining room proper. A few steps below street level, it looks like the inside of the corporate yacht. It’s sleek and subtly nautical, with low lighting, a skylight in the back room (which is like a sailboat cabin), a curved beamed ceiling, mahogany paneling and cherrywood floors. Iridescent mosaic tiles and watery blue glass panels suggest the sea.
Two outstanding first courses are the raw tuna and the yellowtail. The tuna is done tataki-style: rolled in ground fennel and mustard seed, flash-seared and cut in paper-thin squares. The spice crust gives just the right tiny crunch, and shavings of radish add a peppery bite. The tuna is topped with a sweet, crispy confit of shallots and a champagne vinaigrette. Yellowtail-the king of raw fish-is also cut in thin slices and sprinkled with chopped clementines, sea salt, ground toasted fennel, slivered black olives and strands of fresh fennel. This is one of my all-out favorites, and there you have the recipe! You can make it at home. The trick is to eat these dishes as slowly as you can, in small mouthfuls, to make them last.
As a nod to meat eaters, there are a couple of non-fish dishes on the menu, which changes daily. One evening a contrarian friend, being in a seafood restaurant, decided to order anything but fish. He began with raviolini made from a silky pasta dough filled with fresh sheep’s milk and served with braised veal breast and truffle oil. He followed that with RM’s version of steak and potatoes: pan-roasted onglet with braised short rib jus, mushrooms and whipped potatoes. The steak, which had been marinated in red wine with garlic and rosemary, was cut in rare, beefy slices.
The argument over which comes first, cheese or dessert, is resolved by a section of the menu that offers both at once. A warm walnut date torte comes with a ripened piece of Saint-Nectaire, a rather dry doughnut is accompanied by a powerful goat’s cheese, and a gooey chocolate mousse is served alongside a Vermont bonne bouche.
With dessert comes the tea menu, which the captain treats like a wine list: “This Darjeeling is the Chateau Petrus of Assam, grown on the south side of the hill,” he said one evening, “I suggest green tea with the apple tarte tatin, assam with the hazelnut s’more pie … each tea gets up to four steepings.” If s’mores suggest anything besides a campfire and a stick, it’s a can of root beer. RM refines this American classic while remaining true to its spirit with a hazelnut graham cracker, chocolate ganache and toasted (homemade) marshmallow served with Ovaltine ice cream. The kitchen also turns out a wonderful brandied pear crisp with ginger butterscotch, sesame crackling and basil oil, and a creamsicle made with passion fruit that comes with pineapple beignets. Rice Krispies show up in a pillbox with chocolate, filled with banana and served with bourbon pecans and a malted milk. You don’t get desserts like this at the beach.
The lone diner had finished his bottle of wine and now had a glass of tea in front of him, which he was sipping as attentively as if it were the Gevrey-Chambertin. “Are you from California?” I asked. He flushed. “You could tell? I live here half the year around the corner. I was walking by and wondered what this place was, so I just dropped in. What a piece of luck,” he added. “I’ll be back.”