|the lamb burger|Fishtag
By SAM SIFTON
WHAT a strange and frustrating if occasionally marvelous restaurant is Fishtag, Michael Psilakis’s new venture on West 79th Street, across the street from the Dublin House.
A neighborhood joint with aspirations that are somewhat higher than that, the restaurant marries solid Mediterranean cooking to a kind of wackadoo, cheffy bravado that brings sea urchin to the table floating in a glass of brackish seawater as if it were art. (It is not. It is kind of nasty.) Fishtag is a good restaurant trapped inside a bad one.
Mr. Psilakis, the executive chef and an owner, and his chef de cuisine, Ryan Skeen, grill striped bass with the best in this city, and adorn the fish simply, with lemon, over broccoli rabe. This is great. More, please.
They serve a marvelous lamb burger, with whipped feta, chilies and smashed potatoes that you may find yourself thinking about days later. The dish costs $16. If it were available in your neighborhood, you would know the name of the restaurant’s hostess, the bartender and your favorite waiter within a month.
The pair also prepares some of the city’s greatest toast: grilled to smokiness, its crust giving way to a luscious interior. They serve it with a selection of many estimable cheeses, cured meats and fishes, and have a fine list of bracing whites and dry reds to drink along with them. (The bar up front, which runs a long way into the space, is a good place to graze these.)
But often Fishtag recalls what happens when children get into Mom’s closet and play at fashion. The food shows up in the dining room overdressed and shrieking in three shades of lipstick and mismatched slingbacks, with flavors that clash or do something rather worse than that.
This may be cute for children. Here it leaves you stuck eating a bowl of the pasta twists known as trofie, which are mixed into a thick tomato sauce flecked with chewy cuttlefish and strings of short-rib meat. Gooey smoked mozzarella and an overlay of ricotta salata are on top. Oh, honey.
More bad news: The menus are odd, with a format that moves from light food to heavy and with appetizers printed in red and entrees in black. There is a separate sheet for the cheeses, cured meats and fish. These are all difficult to navigate.
The dining room, meanwhile, is crowded, narrow and rec-room noisy, with oppressively low ceilings and a soundtrack that runs to stalwarts of the FM radio dial, circa 1980. (“Wait, is that — Boston?”)
Fishtag has none of the Aegean cheeriness that could be found when Mr. Psilakis had Onera in this space, four years ago, and none of the purity of cooking, either. Gone, too, are the diner trappings Mr. Psilakis put in when he opened Gus & Gabriel Gastropub here in 2009. That, for the record, is very much to the good. The servers jostle about and seem to suffer the ill effects of claustrophobia: they can be skittish; they seem to stoop.
And everywhere the food piles high, often under parsley and pomegranate seeds, beneath rounds of radish, many dishes indistinguishable from the last.
A bruschetta of bland tuna confit with bland baked ricotta, for instance, showered in too much garlic and roughly the size of a strip steak, might easily be interchanged with a similar dish served with whipped salt cod and smoked eggplant; they could stand in the same police lineup and confuse an eyewitness. Their tastes run together. On the table, they become one big pile of Greekish salad.
Grilled sardines are fine. (Some compliment!) A salad of chopped chicory, wild arugula and bulgur comes with a shopping list for a yoga weekend in Taos: Medjool dates, pomegranate seeds, green olives, breakfast radish, pistachio, peppers, grilled onions and smoked almonds. Enough!
Not all the experiments are failures. For an excellent bruschetta, order the one with grilled prawns, feta and fiery chilies. It could make a daily lunch without tempting boredom. Mussels, meanwhile, are served in a huge bowl with spicy merguez, in a broth heavy with shredded lamb. The combination — with pickled leeks and confitted chickpeas mixed in, to boot — is weird and exciting and new. It is a similar play to the one with cuttlefish and short rib, though with a far better ending. Get some bread with that and mop and mop and mop.
Also estimable is a dish of smoked octopus with chorizo and a smoky potato purée, accompanied by pickled mushrooms and lemon. The flavors are intense and focused, with no muddiness between them.
What, however, is the purpose of a grilled branzino stuffed with headcheese, except to tempt food loons eager to experience something different? (The dish might serve as a prime example of the term “critic bait.”) There is an excellent accompaniment of greens braised with guanciale, but the fish itself was overcooked, with an interior that proved of sticky interest only to those predisposed to believe a fish stuffed with headcheese is a good idea. This may well be true, but Fishtag’s version does not satisfy the court. Explanation denied.
The restaurant’s burger deserves much praise, though. Mr. Skeen has drawn accolades throughout his young career (at Resto, at Irving Mill and briefly at 5 & Diamond, among others) for his prowess with ground meats. Nothing at Fishtag dims the justification for that praise. The lamb burger at Fishtag is as fat as a squashed softball, with a monkish simplicity to its preparation. It is served beneath a tonsure of whipped feta and leaks beautifully into its bun. It tastes fantastic.
You can eat this sandwich, after a bruschetta or two, then bang down some excellent Ethiopian French-press coffee to end your meal. (Neither Mr. Skeen nor Mr. Psilakis seem much interested in sweets, so there is but a mean little list of sorbets and ice creams for dessert.) You can have cheese and a punchy red wine and consider the place a wine bar.
But either way you’ll be left sitting in a basement on West 79th Street listening to classic rock and feeling disappointed. There is too much at Fishtag that is too much, and too little to offer compensation for that fact. Mr. Psilakis has shown us — first at Onera, more recently at his Kefi, on Columbus Avenue — that he can do better. Here he should start by doing less.
222 West 79th Street (Broadway), Upper West Side; (212) 362-7470, fishtagrestaurant.com.
ATMOSPHERE Subterranean almost-there blues.
SOUND LEVEL Loud-conversational, a little clattery.
RECOMMENDED DISHES Grilled prawn bruschetta, smoked octopus, lamb burger, grilled striped bass, mussels and spicy lamb.
WINE LIST Small but wide ranging. All bottles are available by the glass and in half bottles as well. Good beer selection.
PRICE RANGE Appetizers, $9 to $14; entrees, $16 to $26.
HOURS Sunday to Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday to 11 p.m. Weekend brunch noon to 3 p.m.