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For the Freshest Fish, Head to the East River


Sooner or later, those of us who follow the career of Jean-Georges Vongerichten reach a point where our memories can’t keep up. The tuna tartares start to run together; we can’t recall whether it’s served in lettuce cups with threads of shiso at Perry St. or at JoJo. At some point it’s hard to recall what makes the chicken breast inside a resoundingly crunchy Parmesan crust at Nougatine different from the Parmesan-crusted chicken at the Mark.

With his partner, Phil Suarez, Mr. Vongerichten has founded scores of new restaurants around the world. Nearly 40 of them are still up and running, 15 in New York. Devising menus for each new place, he repeats himself occasionally, but more often he rearranges old patterns. Lime juice is traded for yuzu, cherry vinegar comes in for balsamic. Almost always, the result is a dish that is similar enough to his past work to be recognizably Vongerichtenesque but different enough to seem fresh.

Maybe he can keep track of it in his head, but for the rest of us it would be really useful to have a family tree of every dish he ever invented, with its parentage and offspring. Something like 23andMe, it could tell you which strands of kitchen DNA are shared by which Vongerichten restaurants — 23andV.

This service would come in handy in times like the present, when critics and superfans are trying to metabolize the two restaurants Mr. Vongerichten opened in New York City during a single week in May. One is the Paris Café, a casual, all-day proposition inside Eero Saarinen’s T.W.A. terminal at Kennedy International Airport, now gloriously resurrected as the TWA Hotel. The second is a polished seafood house that sits out in the East River on the end of Pier 17, next to the wreck of the old Fulton Fish Market; it’s called the Fulton.

Because I’ve been to both so recently, I can report confidently that the Fulton slices deep-red strawberries over strawberry ice cream and a sorbet made from strawberries and red wine to make its strawberry sundae, while the one at the Paris Café substitutes dried strawberries. That version isn’t bad, but there is an undeniable difference between fresh summer berries and dehydrated ones, and that difference suggests the quality gap between the two restaurants.

The best reasons to go to the Paris Café are Saarinen’s glass walls, gliding curves and suspended catwalk, although the dining areas are swell, too, smartly evoking Raymond Loewy’s original design for the space, which looked like a coffee shop on the moon. The place has some likable pizzas and salads, and it vaults clear over the other restaurants at the airport. But the recipes seem designed not to push the kitchen too hard, the menu is even more Vongerichtenesque than usual, and any dishes involving fruits or vegetables will make you wonder whether the produce truck drove to La Guardia instead.

The Fulton, though, is a grown-up production. Under the day-to-day command of Noah Poses, the executive chef, it is easily the best seafood restaurant to open in Manhattan since the Pool, and easier to afford. Yes, a handful of items on the menu have that glassy-eyed stare, but almost everything else comes through.

To get to the Fulton, you have to walk almost all the way to the end of the pier, where some tall planters cordon off the Fulton’s outdoor tables. All the tables, indoors and out, have a view of the Brooklyn Bridge, but the best backdrops are inside and upstairs, where you can see that you’re surrounded by water. Mentioning the view as a selling point will make some New Yorkers cringe. But Pier 17’s developer, clearly hoping to erase the stigma, has recruited David Chang, Andrew Carmellini and Mr. Vongerichten. Day trippers and tourists will love the Fulton, in any case, and they will be right.

True, the outdoor patio feels like the beachside bar of some island resort, with soft-core club music playing and servers carrying too-small trays slinking around in long skirts. Once you get inside, though, the tension in the open kitchen lets you know this is, in fact, New York.

Running a seafood house gives Mr. Vongerichten an opening to lead with one of his strong suits, raw fish. The sea trout tartare is stirred with raw oysters and horseradish, which creates the uncanny momentary illusion that you’re eating beef. White ponzu, made from white soy sauce, is the centerpiece of a platter of iced sashimi. Local fluke, taking a bath in habanero vinaigrette, is topped with mint and Sichuan buttons; even if you know what’s coming — Sichuan buttons are the flower buds of the toothache plant, which when chewed, produce a numbing and cooling sensation — the dish is a surprise.

The Fulton’s Manhattan clam chowder is spicy, thick with potatoes and a healthy portion of clams. It’s the rare version that tastes as good as it sounds, although purists will deduct one point for the absence of oyster crackers. There’s a very intriguing sesame-poppy crust on the soft-shell crabs; you have just enough time to register the seeds before a potent green salsa of coriander and jalapeño kicks in.

Few chefs are as skilled at using acidity, heat and salt to bring definition to a dish. So it’s a surprise to realize how generic the Fulton’s fish stew is, or to wonder what the ingredient is that throws the red snapper ceviche in watermelon juice out of whack.

A separate menu card lets you know that most of the seafood in the main courses can be ordered “simply cooked.” I was never curious enough to try it, being too distracted by the salmon in a cumin-coriander seed crust so fragrant it turns heads; the sea bass and carrots in a life-affirming pool of lemon-turmeric sauce; and the detailed-oriented fish and crisps, a brick of flounder kept at scalding temperature by a leakproof and supernaturally crunchy buckwheat batter. Served with mashed fresh peas, it could almost pass for English if it didn’t come with saffron aioli.

Most distracting of all is the whole black bass baked inside a fish-shaped pastry lavishly decorated with golden scales, fins, gills and other parts the bass itself won’t be needing anymore. It takes a good 10 minutes to unveil it, fillet it and then plate it together with slices of crust, some tomato concassé and a sauce choron, and I doubt many movies playing in theaters now can rival it for entertainment.

Wonderful as it is to see one of the showpieces of pre-nouvelle cuisine given so much attention, you could ask whether whole fish en croute really makes sense after, say, kale salad. Mr. Vongerichten’s technical approach may let him generate a menu full of smart, reliably pleasurable food, but it doesn’t guarantee that it will all hang together.

The pastry menu does, though, by sneakily staying true to classic American desserts. What’s sold as Meyer lemon pudding turns out to be more like a lemon meringue tart with a quick, pulsing acidity; the apricot pie is more like a crisp, with oatmeal streusel on top; and the highlight of the strawberry sundae isn’t the fresh fruit but the strawberry ice cream, its flavor straight out of the summertime ice cream shacks in a thousand vacation towns.

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