Enticing seafood specialties and reasonable prices at Mermaid Inn
By Tom Steele
In a time not long gone by, other than the venerable Ocean Grill, you would have been hard pressed to find a really terrific and reasonably priced seafood restaurant on the Upper West Side. Somehow, this decidedly idiomatic area just didn’t lend itself to seafood-driven places. In 2007, restaurateur Danny Abrams and co-owner/executive chef Laurence Edelman decided to change that by opening a new edition of their East Village seafood shrine on a populous stretch of Amsterdam Avenue.
The space is quite similar to that of the downtown Mermaid Inn, though of course the crowd—and I do mean crowd—is totally different. For one thing, there are a lot more regulars, partly because the Upper West Side remains the most good-restaurant-parched neighborhood in Manhattan, but also because Mermaid Inn has many continually intriguing dishes at relatively affordable prices. In gentle weather, there is a large al fresco area out in front, and a pair of large dining rooms inside, separated by the long kitchen. The room in back is preferable if you don’t want to dine in din—though as even that space fills it can get quite loud—but you don’t have to shout to hear one another. Dark wainscoting runs through the rooms, and it’s the only banquette-less restaurant I’ve been to in many weeks. The walls are hung with antique sea maps and portraits of various species of ocean fish. Wine bottles are lined up around the back room on a high shelf.
Service is studied and swift. Our server, Sarah, has a certain Nordic beauty and maintained considerable equanimity in the midst of a swelling and ravenous crowd. Chef Edelman’s executive chef is now Richard Krause, and we hit him on his opening night. There wasn’t a single false step in his cooking—no mean feat when dealing with a full seafood menu in a restaurant that regularly fills with over 90 people.
There are some very original house cocktails available. Ginger lemonade arrives in a huge red wine glass, and features Hangar One citron vodka, fresh lemon, sugar syrup and plenty of ginger. The Shanty blends mezcal, citrus and jalapeño pepper for a nice kick.
Among other less serious effects, the recent calamity in the Gulf of Mexico will drive up the price of oysters, perhaps considerably. So get ’em while you can. Start with a grand platter if you’re a group, or a baby grand if you’re a pair. There are bracingly saline clams, three trios of oysters and a generous heap of lobster knuckles, offered with drawn butter, homemade mayonnaise and that horseradishy “cocktail sauce” that seems designed for people who hate seafood, so completely does it drown out the delicate flavors of shellfish.
Curried oysters have no curry flavor whatsoever, but are topped with a cucumber puree and a delicious dollop of salmon roe, and parked on a bed of seaweed strands.
Chilled avocado-cucumber soup is a cooling puree, rather timidly flavored, but quite refreshing. The peppered, chopped shrimp rescue matters.
Lightly breaded fried calamari are perfectly cooked (a rare occurrence, truth be told) with subtle and tender results. Homemade mayonnaise and warm tomato sauce are on hand.
Sarah told us that perhaps the restaurant’s most popular entrée is the deeply luscious and highly generous lobster roll, which is served on a large buttered brioche bun with a mound of Old Bay-dusted fries. Certain other purveyors of this masterpiece of a sandwich use untenably chewy buns. The brioche lets you revel in the textures of the lightly mayonnaised lobster meat.
Pan-roasted cod arrives on a bed of truffled mashed potatoes, topped with crispy fried spinach, all surrounded by a lobster/tarragon cream sauce. The hunks of cod meat are unusually juicy and yielding.
We may be in something of a minority here, but we especially loved the fact that, instead of having to ponder 12 to 20 dessert choices, we were both presented with a small cup of perfectly delicious bittersweet chocolate pudding topped with a rosette of stiffly whipped cream. Like everything else about Mermaid Inn, this decision was just right.
What a marvelous way to bring in summer!
The Mermaid Inn
568 Amsterdam Ave.
(betw. 87th and 88th streets)
Entrées: $19 to $26