After taking New York by storm with her Michelin-starred gastropub the Spotted Pig, British-born chef April Bloomfield is now basking in the success of her second venture. Rosie Birkett went to check it out, and enjoyed every mouthful.
"My business partner made it clear to everyone that we were going for three New York Times stars with this place, which was a lot of pressure and, unfortunately, we only got two," smiles April Bloomfield from her perch at the fishing bait-flecked counter at the John Dory in Manhattan's Meatpacking district.
At the far end of the restaurant - whose interior, with its fish tanks and huge fish murals, is part nostalgic sea shanty and part chic Manhattan eaterie - Bloomfield's brigade busies itself at the open kitchen in preparation for brunch.
"But, actually, it's been a blessing in disguise, because we've gone a bit more casual; we're a lot more comfortable with it and the customers are happier because the price range isn't so high, which is important at the moment," says the chef in her soft American twang, which is still laced with the odd Brummy intonation.
Bloomfield was just 28 when she left the team at the River Café, coming to New York to open the Spotted Pig with business partner Ken Friedman, which, joining a fairly formal dining scene, went on to become NYC's first successful gastropub, winning a Michelin star.
The John Dory, which opened last November, is her second venture - though she's opening a third at New York's new Ace hotel this summer - and has been well received, despite New York Times critic Frank Bruni not giving it his highest rating.
Our very own AA Gill gave it five stars, describing the food at the fish restaurant as "cod-fisted, fishy-fingered food, made with panache and a big mouth".
Bloomfield made a name for herself serving homely, meaty and often offal-based comfort food at the Spotted Pig, so why the move into fish? "I love cooking fish," she says. "It's a challenge to cook because it's hard to get right and there are so many variables that can go wrong, but I like a good challenge - we should challenge ourselves every day as chefs. That's why it's nice having an open kitchen: it keeps everyone on their toes," she laughs.
The open kitchen which services the 48-seat restaurant is complete with plancha, grill and sauté, but Bloomfield also has a larger prep kitchen downstairs where her team prepare the fresh fish and utilise the in-house smoker. Most of the ingredients come from the Union Square Market, with lots of local produce such as potatoes and strawberries.
But sourcing ingredients wasn't always such a breeze, as Bloomfield explains, recalling her earliest days in her New York kitchen. "When I first opened the Pig, I'd phone up suppliers and no one could understand a word I was saying. It was infuriating. Then my sous chef rang up and ordered in this faux cockney accent, and they instantly knew what she was saying. After that, I used to ring in my orders and say, (she mimics a broad cockney accent) ‘Hi! It's April Bloomfield from the Spotted Pig.'"
The vibrant, fish-centric European fare is a real mixture of influences - you can see the chef's penchant for powerful, robust flavour coming through in her best-selling dishes like the baby squid stuffed with chorizo and rice ($14/£8.50), and the fish stew ($28/£17), which comes with an unctuous aïoli and almost-burnt charred bread that adds a meaty complexity to the dish. But it's the oyster pan roast starter which was the stand-out dish on my visit.
Not exactly a steal at $19 (£11.55) - but worth every cent - it was, without a doubt, the best thing I ate in New York. The dish is a small bowl of oysters poached in an incredibly intense creamy broth, infused with white wine, tarragon and lots of lemon juice. The lemon flavour beautifully cuts through the cream, which is livened up with a pinch of cayenne pepper, while the delicate grey/lilac oysters burst in the mouth with that signature mineral taste. A crostino spread with devilishly salty sea urchin butter brings that sea-freshness lost with cooked oysters in an ingenious balancing act.
With accomplished, well thought- out dishes like this, she must be aiming for a star to match that of the Pig? "It blew me away when I got one for the Pig," she grins. "I'm not going to expect one here. I'm just going to get my head down and cook the food that I like to cook, develop my chefs and, hopefully, have a successful business. Having a busy, happy, vibrant restaurant is number-one priority."
The John Dory, 85 10th Avenue, New York, NY 10011-4725, USA.
Tel: 00 1 212 929 4948.
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- Pan-roasted John Dory for two with salsa verde, $58 (£35.30)
- Grilled octopus with white runner beans, $27 (£16.45)
- Treacle pudding for two, $20 (£12.20)
- Apple tart with roasted cinnamon ice-cream, $11 (£6.70)
- Eccles cake with Stichelton, $11 (£6.70)