Its fitting that on the day of removing the shuttered Le Philosophe from the Z-List, I visit the newest tenant, Fish Cheeks. Gone are the philosophers hanging on the wall, the foie gras hanging from the Tournedo Rossinis, and in is a colorful, fishy Thai eatery with some early identity issues. On paper, Fish Cheeks looks and sounds like one of the most exciting new openings of the year, perhaps except for the name. When two brothers reunite from two corners of the world, to form their first restaurant, one could expect a better name. “Cheeks” and “Fish” should never be part of any name, unless its a brothel or something.
I can give you a very solid argument why going to places as soon as they open is the best time. Initial buzz, easy to get a table, chefs and staff are guaranteed to work their tuches off in order to please you in today’s “everyone’s a critic world”. But I can also give you a very solid argument to wait a year until the proprietors mature, smooth things out while figuring out what works and what doesnt. Very often, I see menus that are very different than where they were a year ago (Nishi). And while publishers like NYT and NY Mag do a good job taking their time before reviewing a place, 2-3 years down the road, the reviews start to look stale and premature.
Everybody has to start somewhere. Fish Cheeks certainly delivers enough positive elements to warrant a visit for anyone who loves Thai food and especially Thai Seafood. But at the same time, it can use some more maturing. It’s one thing to cook at world renowned places as the brothers did (Bangkok’s esteemed Nahm for one), but opening in NYC is another animal. In the last 5 years we’ve seen a Thai revolution of sorts and the competition is getting fiercer by the minute. When was the last time you saw Pad Thai on Instagram. Actually, the only philosophy you’ll see on the Philosopher wall today, is the proclamation of a No Pad Thai Zone. Cute, but doubt many expect Pad Thai in a place that takes Grub Street hot list by storm, and in that location.
Another assumption that the brothers can make is that New Yorkers dont need reminders that we can share. They bill themselves as a place to experience “Family Style”, including the right side of the menu stating “Family Style Dishes”. No, the dishes are not particularly bigger than other Thai places, and its a just a matter of time until a Yelper goes “How do I share the 2 Shrimp in the Goong Aob Woon Senn with 4 of my closest friends”. In Thai joints in general, “family style” whatever that means today is already assumed by many if not most. What is not assumed is getting the main courses 3 minutes after getting the appetizers. If the idea of Family Style here is that all the dishes arrive at the same time including the appetizers, than perhaps make the prices reflect a more Fast Food joint, than a place you linger in. We were done within an hour.
But I’m willing to play along and forget if the food takes me to places my taste buds havent gone before (I’v read it in another blog. Dating for Pizza Lovers). The crispy Fried Chicken served with sweet Chili sauce was a respectable starter, but an average quality compared to Somtum Der and many more these days. More like it was the Namtok Pork, bathed in delicious Thai herbs and spices, though not entirely unfamiliar flavors. Crab Fried Rice, not only featured plenty of crab but the rice had that nice crunch that I prefer (take note Uncle Boons)
The fried whole Branzino is deboned, sort of butterflied, and perhaps the most interesting dish here. We had to order another one, not because it was particularly impressive but because half of our party could not fully enjoy the spicier stuff. The coconut crab curry while packed with deep flavors, was a little too much for the women (we were with another couple by the way). Almost equally as fiery, the Seafood Pad Cha was indeed ChikaLicious! (you see what I did there?), though marginally better than an occasional Pure Thai Cookhouse special. And since Thai joints are not exactly known for their dessert, you can walk to ChikaLicious or the closer phenom Spot Dessert Club. The lone coconut dessert at Fish Cheeks will make my wife and her sister do their best De Niro impression while spitting profusely. Its very embarrassing. For them. While we record it with our iPhones.
Many like myself will rejoice in the heat levels at Fish Cheeks no doubt. But the problem is that when you make your most desirable sounding dishes very spicy, you create a “Family Style” ordering problem for those coming with, well, families, or friends with more sensitive palates. Raise your hand if all your friends can handle a lot of heat. You are in the 1% I’m guessing. For the rest of us, it will be “Hey, do you want to go back to Fish Cheeks, remember, that place we went with your sister about a year ago”, “Oh that spicy place where I almost got hospitalized? How about something more Obamacare friendly”. But I do wish them well, and a longer tenure than the previous tenant.
55 Bond St (Bowery/Lafayette)
Rating: One Z (out of 4)
Stars range from Good to Exceptional. Simple as that