Ordinarily, I’m a fan of fried food, of fat, of slick lips and lusty fulfillment. And I went to BarFry with that in mind. Headed by Josh DeChellis of Union Pacific and Sumile, this new West Village hangout is dedicated to the Japanese art of tempura. He tested something like 8,000 batters to find perfection. The mission: greaseless frying heightening flawless ingredients, a reevaluation of what frying can be, etc., etc. The verdict: meh.
The batter, which contains industrial coagulants and eschews the crunch of panko, is the secret, apparently, and it can be quite good. Slightly sweet, it made a perfect counterpoint to the crunch of string beans ($4) and transformed humble pumpkin ($4) into something decadent, if slick. Yellowfin tuna ($10) was revelatory, with a thin fried layer but ruby red throughout, and was one of the few dishes to really gain from the dipping sauces — in this case, a miso mustard sauce.
Another seafood tempura, the shrimp ($6), was stringy and drenched in oil (probably fried at too low a temperature). Such inconsistency is understandable at a sports bar, but at a restaurant dedicated to the art of tempura… unthinkable. Two fried meat dishes, a beef beignet ($6) and a veal terrine ($6) seemed more Australian than Japanese. Even Americans don’t tend to say, “Hey, let’s take some stew, stuff it into dough and deep-fry it.” Maybe we should. Both were delicious, hot, puffy, juicy, fatty coronaries, preparation for a nice long coma.
In the end, the most satisfying dishes turned out to be of the un-fried variety. Fresh wasabi peas ($7) — cold snow peas and snap peas kissed by wasabi — were a welcome palate refresher after all that grease. And sautéed pea leaves with XO sauce ($7) were just plain delicious, market fresh, sweet and bitter, glazed in a heady Chinese XO (dried seafood, garlic, chili). Everything went nicely with their house gaijin pale ale, specially made by Rogue. A better option is a can of hoppy Pork Slap Ale ($5) or a nip of sake.
The sparse white-tiled space with steel bar, mirrors and a delightful chalkboard-wrapped bathroom screams out that the fried food you’ll down will be light, flaky and refined. Yes, they use fine ingredients, but too often end up sopping them in oil. And because the kitchen has this notion that it’s ok for everything to come out at once, after a few minutes, transcendent turns soggy. The makings of a fun night out are here — maybe enough to get past the gimmickry — but the obviously talented staff has to rethink the experience. They don’t want customers walking out like I did, sated but ill.