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Mermaid Inn Takes A Small Step In The Wrong Direction

February 14, 2011

They do have a nice bar, and a solid bartender.

The Mermaid Inn opened a branch on the Upper West Side a while ago, and I guess I’ve been there about four times over the months (year?) since it opened.

It’s a small place, with a bar up front along with a few tables, and a small dining room in the back. I’m guessing there are maybe two dozen tables in the place.

When we first went there, we had mixed reviews, frankly. The price point seemed a bit high, though the fish was fine. The missus and I came to discover two dishes we quite enjoyed, one of which was a truly superior crab cake slider. Holy Harold, it was delicious. What made it special was the crisp searing of the crab cake, the distinct lack of filler, the freshness and the quality. I can honestly say I’m not sure I’ve ever had a better crab cake. Slap it on a small slider bun, and you have a winner. Unfortunately, it was a special appetizer, so you couldn’t count on it always being there, although I seem to recall them regularizing it on Thursdays (or so they said).

They also serve their version of the Hot Lob, which I’ll review later, which we basically enjoyed, even if it made us nostalgic for the real thing.

All in all, we decided to give it another run because of these mixed, but generally positive, experiences.

A bit to start... .

The bartender, who was a real “mixologist,” as they go by these days (I suppose), was very friendly and poured a mean martini. Delicious. As we waited for a table, we ordered a dozen oysters to start. The selection is fairly limited – about six varieties, I believe – but nonetheless delicious. The barman informed us that the Mermaid Inn has created an Oysterpedia App for iPhones. I’ve yet to download it, though it seems promising.

We opted to wait at the bar for a table in the back. Up front it is always bustling and you’re liable to get jostled (such has been our experience), whereas the back area is much more akin to a traditional (if slightly cramped) restaurant. We could’ve been seated up front right away, but decided to take our chances waiting. We were told it would be 20 minutes, so a good time for a cocktail. It took an hour.

Which meant we were absolutely famished but the time the order went in. Speaking of, we inquired about the crab cake appetizers, and were told with some dismay that they’d replaced the chef a few times, so those were gone. This made me considerably nervous.

Little necks with pork belly.

There was something very promising to me on the menu – little necks with pork belly. On a cold winter’s night that sounded pretty delicious. Alack, they were a brilliant idea, but less than stellar in execution. Mind you, they were ok – but just ok.

Note the size of clam to fork.

The little necks themselves were underwhelming. They were steamed, but didn’t seem as fat and fresh as others I’ve had. As you can see in the picture, their size was smaller even for a little neck, barely clearing the tines of the special, small fork served with them to pluck them out. They seemed almost to be a garnish, or flavor counterpoint, for the fat pork belly.

Hard to go wrong here.

Speaking of, the pork belly, as always, was delightful. Nice big chunks, delicious, smoky, fatty, sweet, wonderful. I’ll give the new chef this: the melange of flavors is a very good idea. Needs better little necks to execute properly, in my opinion, but nonetheless inspired. It is served with tomatoes, which seemed almost to be somehow of the sauteed sundried variety.

It's a very big bun.

As you can see, their version of the lobster roll is served on a large brioche bun. That was fine until Luke’s showed up, but now it really seems a bit big. The lobster itself is delish, but the ratio of lobster to bread is not good. Also, the lobster itself is more ground up than the chunky portions served at both Luke’s and Red Hook. I’ve dubbed it the “Not Lob” as it comes up a bit short. You fight with the bread a bit. Last, there’s a bit of a seasoning on the fries, almost a faint spice, that I am not wild about.

The fish taco. Looks very promising.

The biggest disappointment, however, was the fish taco. I thought it was terrific they had them available, especially you can tell them precisely how many you want and they charge you per piece. I ordered two, envisioning fresh fish, pico de gallo and so forth. I was disappointed. The fish was battered and fried, making it heavier. I am guessing that is some sort of concession to the winter weather, and people feeling the need for comfort food, but the tortilla adds a fat as it is, and I really like delicious fresh fish. Why did they fry it? I don’t know. I should also mention they made a huge blunder by serving the taco overly warm. By serving it on the warmer (as opposed to room temperature or faintly warm) side, it hardened a bit. It too didn’t seem fresh as a result.

All in all, it was a real let down, especially after the long wait. It seemed as though the restaurant was moving in the wrong direction: it had been classy, and was now aiming a bit lower. Maybe it is trying to serve a different audience. Perhaps the best way of putting my thoughts on the restaurant is this: where once it had been the New Yorker, it now seemed more like Time Out.

The pudding.

One of the better parts of Mermaid Inn’s shtick is they serve you an espresso cup of chocolate pudding at the end. It’s delightful. Of course, it’s prepared whenever they put them together, so be prepared for that pudding skin that can form.

On balance, and perhaps it was an off night, but it seemed to me the place had taken not just a step backwards, but a big step backwards. I used to come there expecting fresh, succulent, delicious fish. This time I got fried fish (expecting fresh) and disappointing little necks. It was all in all a let down. I hope they can put things right soon.

Mermaid Inn

568 Amsterdam Avenue
New York, NY 10024

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