The Minnow was so packed on a recent Friday
evening that you’d swear the restaurant was giving away free
dinners. It’s true that there were no seafood restaurants in
Park Slope, and the neighborhood needed one badly, but really,
all this hoopla over fish?
The buzz surrounding this tiny place could be heard in communities for miles around; there’s even talk of it on Chowhound.com, the internet site for the food obsessed. What’s the big deal? Fish and little else, an exciting wine list and a scene (yes, a restaurant close to Seventh Avenue with a "scene"). Who could have imagined it?
The restaurant looks like one you’d find on the Upper East Side. It’s small and narrow with lots of warm wood and softly tinted walls. The service is solicitous and attractive (our waitress could double for Charlize Theron) and even the busboy said, "I hope you enjoy your meal." Locals crowding the small bar are young and hip, or older and hip, and don’t mind waiting for seats nose-to-nose. To sit, you do a little shimmy between the closely spaced tables, praying that you don’t knock wineglasses into entrees on your way.
Is all the hype deserved? Well, yes and no. I liked the decor, and wasn’t bothered by the closely spaced seating, which makes dining at the Minnow feel intimate.
The problem lies with the food.
When chef and owner Aaron Bashy, formerly of Le Bernardin in New York, keeps his cooking simple, it’s wonderful. When he strays from classic seafood preparations - just roasting a fish and splashing it with a zesty sauce, or simply accompanying impeccably fresh shellfish with a housemade sauce - his dishes are less successful.
Start with the appetizers. The East and West Coast oysters, Wellfleet and Steamboat Springs that evening, were the freshest I’ve tried. Slurp one down and it’s a bracing ocean wave of briny flavor. Served with a spicy mignonette (a French sauce of red wine, white pepper and shallots) and crunchy, housemade oyster crackers, seafood doesn’t get any better than that.
While nothing beats raw seafood, I was willing to try the octopus ravioli in a Parmesan-tomato broth. The dish was pleasant, the tender filling mildly flavored with chives and tarragon, but the sauce was under-spiced. It’s not a bad dish, but you won’t lie in bed thinking about it either.
The house specialty that is reeling in diners, and leaving them sighing, is the whole roasted market fish. That evening a big black bass was served with a saffron-and-ginger tomato sauce. The impressive fish filled most of a large plate. The skin could have been crisper, but the flesh was moist and full-flavored, and the piquant sauce perfectly complemented the mild bass. A side of mashed potatoes was rich to the extreme and made deliciously salty by the inclusion of olives. A squash gratin, delicate and fresh flavored, balanced the stronger flavors of the fish and those tangy potatoes.
Bashy is willing to cook any seafood on the menu to your specifications. If you want your bass grilled, ask for it grilled.
For $17 I was disappointed to receive four, not overly large shrimp, in the shrimp kabob entree. I had hoped for big prawns served with chunks of onion and peppers, generously seasoned with garlic. This appetizer-sized portion, with little squares of onions and orange sections, was timid in presentation and flavor. The sides, a delectable, creamy polenta, flavored with chestnuts, and crisp, garlicky haricot verts (French green beans) were the understudies that stole the show.
Bashy has thoughtfully included a green market vegetable plate and lamb chops entree for those who always order the wrong thing in a restaurant.
Bashy collaborates with his wife Vicky on the pastries, and again, some are good and some aren’t. I tried the warm chocolate souffle with vanilla ice cream. The souffle was rich with bittersweet chocolate flavor, and the ice cream tasted of vanilla beans. The king cake (a special that evening) was a leaden, yeasty affair filled with undersweetened almond paste that ended my dinner with a dull thud.
Also on the menu is a French apple tart, banana cheesecake, a fruit plate, ice creams and sorbets, and the new dessert du jour, the beignet. Bashy’s version is filled with pineapple and served with caramel sauce and ice cream.
Bashy recognizes the need for a restaurant in Park Slope that serves good seafood at prices that don’t leave diners reeling. Though he succeeds beautifully in many respects, he’s cast his net too wide. For The Minnow to be more than a big fish in a little sea he needs to follow this motto - cook it simply and they will come.
The Minnow (442 Ninth St. at Seventh Avenue) accepts Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Diners Club. Entrees: $15-$19. The Minnow is closed Tuesdays. For reservations, call (718) 832-5500.