When Lower East Side fishmonger Steven Wong was in Scotland recently, he saw something that he wasn’t used to finding back home: giant langoustines as big as a human arm. He took out his phone, snapped a photo and texted it to Bun Cheam, the chef behind Wong’s new restaurant venture.
“Bun, can you experiment with this type of seafood? Can you try to make something different out of this? Because we don’t see it in New York,” Wong said.
Cheam had never seen langoustine that big before either, but said he could come up with something. So Wong air-shipped five pounds of the crustacean back to his kitchen in the U.S., where Cheam experimented with them in dishes that he’ll soon roll out on his menu.
This is how it works at Essex Pearl, a “tide to table” seafood market and eatery that opened last week in the Lower East Side’s latest bazaar-like food hall, The Market Line. Here, unusual seafood and crustaceans are sourced directly from fishermen all over the world and sold directly to consumers, either raw, for them to take home and prepare themselves, or cooked in one of Cheam’s globally inspired dishes, like lobster roll bao.
The restaurant was a natural move for Wong, who grew up in the fish business. His family, immigrants from Hong Kong, founded the seafood distribution Aqua Best in New York 35 years ago.
“My mother and father started bringing in items that were not popular back then, like geoduck and sea cucumbers,” he said. “Over the years they became very popular and we’ve grown to bring in all kinds of different exotic items.”
Wong took over the business about 15 years ago and began wholesaling to American restaurants, which included Eleven Madison Park, Le Bernardin and Per Se. With Essex Pearl, he’s cutting out the middlemen. Wong travels all over the world to research the seafood supply chain, and now he can show customers directly what great seafood looks and tastes like.
“From a chef’s perspective, having someone so knowledgeable like Steven, who knows all these fishermen intimately, source my seafood is a dream come true,” said Cheam, who previously worked at Brooklyn’s Talde. “I get to work with the freshest ingredients, most interesting things, and I have someone out there just looking out for me. That’s the most exciting part of our project.”
Essex Pearl is a fish market where lobsters and crab scurry around in aquariums, and a full-service restaurant with 48 seats and a raw bar. Shoppers at Essex Pearl can select a crustacean from the tank for Cheam to prepare on the spot, or they can order from his eclectic menu, which is inspired by famous seafood markets from around the world. They can watch him prepare the dishes, too, in his open kitchen, practically providing them with cooking demos for how they can utilize the species at home.
Cheam, a Cambodian immigrant, has traveled extensively around Southeast Asia, where dining at fish markets is a way of life. He draws his menu inspiration from there and famous fish markets from Europe, Asia and U.S.
“At these markets, there’s fruit everywhere, there’s hanging meat and there are fish in tanks,” he said. “You can get a fish and ask them to cook it for you. You can just sit there and eat. I want to bring that experience to this space.”
The raw bar at Essex Pearl offers fresh uni and a dozen oysters, and his kitchen menu includes Spanish tinned fish, served with bread and cured whipped butter; an entire fried piece of Porgy rubbed with curry spices; Hamachi with pickled plum, fried squash flowers and furikake; and monkfish liver croquettas served with gochujang aioli. Sides include homemade kimchi, pickles, preserved lemons, charred vegetables and grains like rice. They also serve beer and wine.
“You get to-share items and little plates of this and that to go with it. You have a table full of food with all sorts of different flavors and it’s meant to be a lot of fun. You might like a sauce from this for the potato or you might like a sauce from another thing for your sandwich. You can mix and match and there’s no rules.”
The menu will change constantly, depending on what Wong finds and what is at its peak season, and the menu will get more adventurous, like incorporating green crabs and lionfish. Wong says he currently receives product within 24 hours of it being fished.
The origins of all the seafood items are included on the menus in an effort to connect diners to the seafood that they’re eating.
“Our focus is bringing awareness to where this seafood comes from,” Cheam said. “Not too many people understand and know about fishing practices. Right now you go to a restaurant and you get a steak and the server can tell you where it was raised and what it ate. That’s all been well documented and part of the food scene for a while. The origins of seafood has not.”
To Cheam and Wong, this is a cultural issue—Americans were brought up on cheap hamburgers and chicken wings, while fish was seen as expensive or special-occasion food. They want to bring transparency to the seafood supply chain and educate diners that fish can be delicious and environmentally responsible.
“If it keeps going the way it’s going, farmed fish is going to become the most sustainable meat out there,” Cheam said. “I think it’s going to tip the balances to seafood being really popular soon. We’re seeing really good seafood restaurants opening up in New York City right now. I think it’s going to start happening all around the country.”
Reservations are available through OpenTable.