Fish Tag is worth the (reasonable) price tag.
Mocked on Eater New York for his confrontational twittering and “flightiness,” Ryan Skeen has been lambasted for moving from one restaurant gig to another all too quickly. Known for boldly seasoned, meat centric food, Skeen’s aggressive culinary style matches his media persona. Before joining Michael Psilakis at Fish Tag, Skeen held the head chef position at 5 & Diamond. After reviewing 5 & Diamond for the Columbia Daily Spectator, I concluded that Skeen’s status as chef-pariah was undeserved. Although a public relations nightmare, Skeen is a competent technician, a creative force in the kitchen, and unabashedly showcases his style. In short, Skeen is a far better chef than the vast majority in New York. Grub Street tried to provoke Skeen into responding to my (not particularly negative) review, hoping that he would take to twitter and let loose a Tom Colicchio worthy rant. Instead, Skeen sent me a message telling me that he respected my writing and my review. When I found myself out of a job this summer, I reached out to Skeen for help. To preface this review, I think that Ryan Skeen is a stand-up guy and a chef worthy of recognition beyond the public relations war room. I was known to the house, and received three complimentary dishes (which are marked with an asterisk * where discussed). Despite my pro-Skeen bias, I believe this review remains as objective as possible. I enjoyed Fish Tag, and hope that Columbians will take the short trip down to 222 West 79th Street for a student friendly meal.
Rumored to have left Fish Tag in late October, Skeen rejoined chef-owner Psilakis prior to opening; when I visited, both were in the kitchen. Two strong culinary identities meet in that kitchen; menu items seem obviously identifiable as a Skeen creation or a Greek-inflected Psilakis venture. Unfortunately, the menu design is asinine. Ordered from lightest to heaviest dishes, the menu ignores conventional “appetizer” and “main course” categories. Instead, smaller plates appear in red, larger plates in black. Did I mention that brackets subdivide the entire menu into suggested drink options, from sparkling wines at the top to peaty scotches at the bottom? But some of the brackets overlap, meaning that those dishes work with either intersecting bracket. Intended to facilitate drinking–and probably extreme inebriation—the menu concept needs serious work. If the wait staff tries to explain the concept four times to a table, something is not quite right.
A formidable array of cured meats, cheeses, and “appetizing” options come listed in a separate booklet, along with specialty cocktails. Prosciutto di Parma seems standard, albeit sliced a millimeter too thick. Draped over grilled bread, the meat tends to slip into the mouth all at once, leaving wan little crusts. Smeared with La Tur *, a moist and tangy Piemontese cheese, those crusts taste just fine. Be warned though, brackets mark the meat and cheese menus too, informing already confused diners that sipping rum goes well with speck and gin works with munster. For the prosciutto/La Tur combo—different brackets!— a diner should double fist a light, aromatic ale and an oaky white wine.
Yet, Skeen and Psilakis’ food doesn’t need beverage program gimmicks. Grilled prawn, feta, and spicy chilies bruschetta * almost collapses under the weight of too many flavors and too many toppings. A monstrous cloud of whipped feta laced with aji amarillo peppers and hunks of juicy prawn nearly disguise the bread beneath. Through sheer force of culinary skill, cohesion emerges between the garlic, cumin, and noticeable heat. “There’s no polite way to eat this,” my Midwestern sized Merchant Marine friend said, as he ravenously attacked the last piece.
Another small plate, grilled sardines, inspires a powerful thirst. Smoky and oily, the sardines arrive resting on fennel confit and saffron pickled fennel. Licorice and acid draw out the sardines’ closeted sweetness.
“You’re at a Michael Psilakis restaurant, you have to try the octopus,” our waiter announced, delivering an artfully arranged plate of smoked octopus *. Tender, but not mushy, the octopus demonstrates the kitchen’s skill with a Mediterranean palette. Chorizo slices contribute spice and oil. And a medley of mushrooms, most evidently slender enoki, emphasize the link between earth and sea.
While students can make a nice evening of sharing these small plates—all $15 and under—bigger plates put a noticeably bigger dent in the monthly food budget.
Grilled swordfish, cooked medium rare, pale pink and fleshy, tastes terribly oversalted. But the Greek sausage accompaniment, loukaniko, brings the plate into focus with a snappy citrus kick.
A tubular construction of grilled branzino stuffed with head cheese, however, is worth ordering. Once sliced, the tube disintegrates into a pile of flaky, mild fish and spectacular forcemeat. With an addictive mushroom confit scattered around the tube, the dish satisfies a yearning for fatty, earthy sustenance. This innovative surf-and-turf interpretation feels perfect for a blustery winter night.
The sillier aspects of Fish Tag’s design aside—including a sushi case intended to hold “appetizing” fishes like sable and pastrami salmon—Psilakis and Skeen’s cooking is accomplished and novel. And the confusing menu structure? An attempt to condense an impressive survey of every imaginable alcoholic beverage. Simultaneously bawdy, brash, and sophisticated, Fish Tag offers students an opportunity for a minor date night splurge or an everyday celebration. This Upper West Side catch merits a trip, one from which diners won’t return with empty stomachs.