There is something very fishy about Laurent Tourondel’s past and present. As a youth, the Frenchman worked in restaurant kitchens in his native country, often serving as a poissonier, or fish chef. “I like the challenge of fish, and the variety of fish,” he says. “You’ve got to get good product, and it must be fresh.” After polishing his skills at restaurants run by Joël Robuchon and the Troisgros family, Tourondel arrived on New York’s dining scene with Cello, a well-received seafood restaurant that abruptly closed in 2002, when, according to various accounts, its main investor ran out of money.
After a two-year hiatus, part of which he spent traveling throughout the United States to study its cuisine, Tourondel returned with BLT Steak, his take on the American steak house, which opened in Midtown Manhattan in early 2004 to warm reviews (including one from Robb Report, which selected it as one of the year’s best new restaurants in our June 2005 Best of the Best issue). But a greater measure of anticipation awaited Tourondel’s opening earlier this year of BLT Fish, the Flatiron district establishment that heralded his return to seafood (in both instances, BLT stands for Bistro Laurent Tourondel). Technically, BLT Fish is three restaurants in one building, with a casual fish shack–style eatery on the first floor, a private dining space on the second, and a formal dining room on the third, all connected by a glass elevator.
Those who were expecting Tourondel to resurrect Cello probably were disappointed, because BLT Fish has more in common with its beefy sibling (which also offers a mix-and-match menu of main courses, sauces, and side dishes) than its Upper East Side ancestor. “Everything is run differently, and the concept is entirely different,” says Tourondel. Yet the chef did crib at least one key characteristic from Cello. “The only thing that is the same,” he notes, “is the technique of cooking fish.”
Downstairs offers clam chowder, lobster rolls, and an oyster bar, but upstairs, the seafood is showcased in a decidedly more intriguing manner. Several of the entrées on the third-floor menu, including Pacific John Dory, Florida red snapper, and Maine black sea bass, are grilled with olive oil and served with head and tail attached. The plates issue from an orderly and calm open kitchen, staffed with individuals who embrace the chef’s meticulous standards, even when they produce results that are absurdly short-lived. For instance, you might observe a kitchen assistant arranging a crown of leafy herbs and vegetables along the arched spine of a large, red, gape-mouthed fish, knowing that within seconds a server will brush the garnish off before carving the fish for the diners.
The trick for Tourondel is maintaining these standards in all of his kitchens. “Everyone knows I can cook a piece of fish, but running two restaurants is a challenge for me,” he says, referring to the first and third floors of BLT Fish. He gives its elevator a workout when running from one kitchen to another—each floor has its own—but the situation now is even more difficult. In June, Tourondel opened his third new restaurant in less than two years: BLT Prime, which spotlights veal, pork, and chicken, as well as fish and steak.
Tuna tartare and other succulent seafood appetizers appear on the third-floor dining room menu at BLT Fish.