Extremely Good Food at Mary’s Fish Camp; Artisanal’s Too Much

Written by Andrey Slivka on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

Back when I
was a child, down at the fishing hole on a sultry summer day, my friends Skipper
and Chucky and I used to cast our homemade lines into the black water, dangle
our bare feet over the edge of the dock and sing a happy fishing song. "O
friendly fishes, come and bite!" we’d warble in joyous harmony. "You’ll
be mommy’s tasty dinner tonight! In creamy butter for her to cook! Scaly
friends, come and bite our yummy hook!"

Those were
the days; those pastoral summers. I was reminded of them when I ate dinner with
a friend at Mary’s Fish Camp, in the West Village, the other night. We’re
talking the heart of the West Village, specifically the corner of Charles and
W. 4th Sts., one of New York’s most charmingly atmospheric locations. Mary’s
is a tiny place, crammed full of no more than a dozen tables, with a curving
metal bar at which you can also eat. The decor is simple: fish-house light blue
and tiley white, and a painting of a big, dopey fish hangs on the wall. A couple
light fixtures emit a flattering glow, soft music plays (an 80s mix tape made
the Gen-X customers happy on the night we were there), windows throw themselves
open so that you can feel the gorgeous breeze off the Hudson, and that’s

All you need
after that is food, which seems to be extremely good here. (The story is that
this place spun off from Cornelia St.’s fine Pearl Oyster Bar. One of the
Pearl’s partners, who’s apparently named Mary, bailed and started
her own eatery.) We ordered tender fried oysters and clams; excellent new-potato
salad; and New England clam chowder that was heavy on the cream, which is the
way I like it, and that you could dredge with your spoon to pull up thick, salty
bacon chunks.

We also ate
a bouillabaisse, and roast cod served over a bed of the purest and most perfectly
cooked mess of corn niblets and lima beans. Eating all this stuff while drinking
Paulaner (there’s also a wine list) on a hot summer night is intensely

The wait for
a table can be long–we sat for 45 minutes. But you’re lolling on a
bench on W. 4th St. with a beer in your hand and the trees are rustling along
the block, so who’s complaining? Bring $50 per mouth.

Fish Camp, 64 Charles St. (W. 4th St.), 646-486-2185.



It’s been
open for how long? Not long. But already, now in this torpid July, Artisanal
exudes the aura of an institution, wallowing on 32nd. St. off Park Ave. like
a smug whale lolling in warm shallows. The huge room amps up the European bistro
ambience until it’s overbearing, and your body feels 12 inches tall. Crowds
spill in from the street, shoving their way in, away from the stunning heat.
Big guys ease back in their polo shirts at the large, comfortable bar, breathing
with their mouths open, trying to recover from the humidity, their corpulent
hands glued to their beers. The banquettes, meanwhile, are too low, so you might
feel even more powerless. My dining companion sat on her book.

The way to
think about Artisanal is as a bad-vibe Balthazar. It’s a lofty, high-powered
and hyperreal bistro, but transposed out of the moody environs of Crosby St.
and into that barren northern edge of the Park Ave. S. restaurant corridor,
where the avenue inclines upward toward the severity and tunnels around Grand
Central Terminal, and where few walk the streets. The space itself is the one
in which you used to be able to find the overrated An American Place, if you
were interested in paying a large amount of money for an arrogantly substandard
dinner–and even given a redesign, Artisanal hasn’t been able to completely
expunge the drab atmosphere of that hustle that Larry Forgione used to call
a restaurant. Diners chew, holler, nibble, gulp, leer, cackle and circulate
in a huge, melancholy and tobacco-colored din.

The food’s
good, as it should be in a high-profile restaurant in New York City in 2001.
We ordered carpaccio of tuna off the handsome oversized menu (so oversized it
was burdensome; you couldn’t lay it down when you were done looking at
it). It was good and extremely fresh, but hard to fully enjoy, because the restaurant
was uncomfortably loud and the help was harried and slow (if well-meaning),
and it was becoming evident that the air conditioning was going to stay insufficient.
I started to think that Artisanal’s model was less Brasserie Lipp than
the Gare de Lyon–and on a summer afternoon, when the place is crammed with
a miserable, overheated bourgeoisie.

We also ordered
shrimp and avocado, which was clever enough to transcend the frenzied circumstances
(the maitre d’ here could use a bullhorn to pierce the noise). This dish
consisted of an avocado half that cradled a scoop of tomato-horseradish granite–that
is, an ice, essentially a tomato sorbet, grainy with huge chunks of what seemed
to be kosher salt. Atop the sorbet lay four big, enjoyable shrimp. So this dish
and I agreed with each other; I thought it adequate, and I venture to say that
it thought me so, as well; there was a satisfying emotional commerce between

What else?
As entrees: grilled lamb chops, tasty as could be; and a fine Dover sole, served
on a white platter with asparagus sprouts and crushed fingerling potatoes. And
oh how I thrilled when, at tableside, the skillful server deboned the beast.
The menu, as you might have figured out by now, is crammed with appealing bistro
dishes. If I were ever to return to Artisanal, and the odds are against it,
I might order the skate wing a la grenobloise, the roast cod, the steak frites,
the seafood platter, the steak tartare, the escargots, the ribeye shmeared in
bordelaise sauce or any one of a number of rotating daily specials, such as
calves’ brains, sweetbreads, coq au vin or duck a l’orange. It’s
nice that Artisanal serves this hoary last dish, by the way. Someone’s
still got to serve duck a l’orange; I’m not sure that even the old
French bistros on Bistro Row do so anymore. Artisanal’s menu also offers
a number of fondues.

Which brings
me to Artisanal’s famous cheese selection, which is displayed in a special
cheese window on the other side of the room, and that’s maintained by cheese-wranglers
who wear poker faces and clinical white smocks and potter around with their
cheeses like chemists over their beakers. So seriously does Artisanal take its
cheese that you’re handed a yellow (that is, cheese-colored) newsletter
about the stuff when you’re seated. "What is Artisanal?" the
newsletter reads. "As you probably know, the name comes from the revered
art of lovingly crafting individual cheeses by hand rather than mass producing
them in factories. Here, we look forward to proudly offering a more extensive
selection of cheeses than any other restaurant in the United States."

Hey man, that’s
cool. The newsletter goes on to describe its "state-of-the-art" cheese
cave, which maintains "the ideal temperature and humidity for each group
of cheeses." And: "…[T]he cheeses rest on slatted beechwood shelves
imported from Europe. The wood for these shelves was cut down from an older
tree at the time of the month when the moon was ascending. Because the tide
is at it’s [sic] lowest then, there is less water in the wood. Then it
is dried for at least one year. Also, wood harvested during this time has less
sap circulating to the tree’s exterior. This creates a more porous surface
which aides in the aging process of the cheese."

I enjoyed the
cheese-and-wine flight I ordered for dessert: three cow’s milk cheeses,
each accompanied by a different nice wine, including a muscat. But if you want
to eat cheese in a hardcore way, visit Chanterelle, where they also take the
stuff seriously, and where your total dining experience is roughly 150 times
better. Artisanal’s too much: the crowds, the hiphop beating incongruously
out over the bar area, the way the sharp cat in the suit won’t seat you
until your whole party shows up even though your table’s right there, in
front of you, empty, longing for your presence.

It’s not
surprising, by the way, that Artisanal’s a spin-off of Picholine. I never
liked Picholine, either.

2 Park Ave. (32nd St.), 725-8585.