I've been inconsolable since the The Old Fish Market locked its tackle box up for good in 1998; it may have looked like a restaurant that time forgot, but it was one of the few of its day devoted solely to seafood -- with a free fish spread starter to boot. Today, there are few places that compare when it comes to fresh seafood. And though there are no shortages of cookie-cutter corporate chains like Red Lobster or The Keg, as much as I hate to admit it, this once popular tourist spot did it just right.
John & Sons Oyster House is aiming to proudly fill that void for the real seafood lover in all of us, not to mention fulfill a childhood dream for owner John Belknap, a man who clearly knows his marine biology. The main room of his new midtown location (with another downtown) doesn't look all that much different than its former occupant, save for a collection of lighthouse tzotchkas and lightbulbs hanging from heavy rope, so it could use a bit more sprucing up like the adjacent private dining room. Unadorned supporting pillars make the room look underdressed, even for a casual haunt like this.
But what's really important here is that John & Sons is true to its name, serving seven to nine different types of oysters (check out their tumblr page for daily listings) and scads of other seafood options. And for those with seafood allergies, he thoughtfully offers a steak frites ($21) and a Korean fried chicken ($21). But really, why bother? If you can't or won't each fish, go somewhere else and let John do what it does best. Better yet, die. (Kidding!!!)
It's also a breath of fresh (saltwater) air to have a server well-versed on the nuances of each type of oyster from Kumamoto and Kusshi to Colville Bay, Cascumpec and French Kiss. More impressive is a six-pack of mignonettes at each table. Choose from the classic shallot, pepper and vinegar to the hell-fire heat of habanero peppers. The rest of the menu is mighty fine examples of the usual suspects. Like a trio of oyster ' boy sliders ($14). Although they reveal a slight tinniness, thanks to a habanero-lime mayo and a spicy-poblano slaw, this fried batch stays in my good books. But it's a brilliant bouillabaisse ($14) that could convert even the staunchest non-pescatarian. Not just because there are ungodly amounts of whitefish, pickerel and mussels, but the stunning, silky garlic saffron tomato broth that they swim in simply astounds. Add to that a by-the-book rouille, two pieces of nicely grilled rustic loaf and a glass of wine, and this dish alone makes this Rosedale locale a worthwhile dining out experience.
I've never been a huge fan of fish and chips. There, I've said it. Batters are most often too thick and greasy with a subpar-quality filling, that is, if you can find any fish at all inside the heavy coating. But this Creemore battered Nova Scotia wild caught haddock ($19) with a homemade slaw demonstrates that even something as pedestrian as this pub food staple, when done right, can display some real culinary might. They had me at Creemore, but the light and airy batter of two moist and flaky fillets never falls away from the fish. In one multisyllabic word, exceptional. Oh, and by the way, you'll never finish the fries.
As expected, lobster is prepared many different ways: from a lobster cake ($15) to a lobster poutine ($21), and it even finds its way tucked inside a seafood ravioli ($24). The poutine with real white cheddar curds doesn't do justice to the quality of this catch; it's mushy from over processing the claw and tail meat mixed in a lobster bÃ©chamel that seems to have separated. And the fries are in such small, gnarly pieces, they look half-eaten. But I can find no fault with the spectacular house made pasta. Lovingly jam packed with a mixture of fresh crab and lobster by Neptune, this pasta enters the stratosphere with a stunning lemongrass veloutee, aromatic tomato curry and basil crisps. At the helm of this kitchen is clearly a head chef who knows what she's doing.
Desserts display a playful side. And who doesn't love a jelly doughnut ($8)? But though made in house they are a bit heavy, not the light and fluffy batter you'd expect. But a fine filling of pomegranate and cherry makes this minor flaw easier to swallow. And s'mores ($8) with a graham cracker crumb cake might very well be the best toasted marshmallows you've ever had, dipped into a jar of dark chocolate cream. How does it maintain that warm ooey gooey texture for so long?
There is really very little wrong with John & Sons, nothing a small tweak or two can't fix. Servers are affable and knowledgeable about the menu, though some may need a trifle more training when it comes to cleaning/clearing tables. No one wants to see a fresh plate of food put on top of a mess that could easily have been cleaned up beforehand. It's as bad as waiters who make you use the same cutlery for each dish. Oh, and one more thing: though the idea of mignonettes on every table may be clever, shouldn't they be kept refrigerated until the oysters are shucked and ready to serve? Also how do you know that patrons aren't double dipping? I did. They were so good I couldn't stop eating directly out of the jars. Of course I made the wait staff aware of my actions, so they wouldn't be reused for other customers. But others may not be that considerate.