Michael Chernow stares around the dining room of his new Lower East Side restaurant as if he's slightly baffled to be there. Though the restaurateur is intimately acquainted with the interior of Seamore's (he was involved in every aspect of its design, from the light fixtures custom crafted by a former employee to the bold pop art patterns and Instagram-bait fish illustrations on the wall), the year thus far has been a blur. His son was born in March, the restaurant opened in June, and in August, Chernow hit the road to film the first season of Food Porn, dropping into 52 restaurants over the course of two three-week sessions, jetting back for a five-day trip home in between.
But the second he steps into the open kitchen and fires up the flattop, it's clear that he's back on familiar turf. Though Chernow isn't part of the day-to-day kitchen staff (culinary director Gregg Drusinsky helms the front lines at Seamore's), it's his concept, his menu and very clearly his passion.
Chernow, along with business partner and childhood pal Daniel Holzman, may be best known for the much-loved Meatball Shop chain, but the New York City native has been obsessed with local seafood for as long as he can remember. "Fish and vegetables make up about 90 percent of my diet. The other 10 percent is meatballs," he jokes.
He grew up fishing on Long Island and along the New Jersey coastline, eating just-caught bluefish, porgy, monkfish and lingcod, often made into fried or grilled sandwiches at fish shacks that lined the road back toward home. "It's simple, and it's fun and I don't know anybody who really doesn't enjoy that," Chernow says. He set out to replicate that particular pleasure for longtime fish sandwich lovers and neophytes alike—only this time with a key ingredient added: sustainability.
Seamore's partners with organizations like Dock to Dish of Montauk—the country's first restaurant-supported fishery (like a CSA but for chefs)—to bring in the local, traceable, wild-caught catch of the day from New York waters in the warmer months and further down toward the Carolinas or Florida for the first couple of months of the year. From there, it just gets simpler. The menu consists of fish tacos, simply seared fish with sides and, of course, fish sandwiches (see the recipe).
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Chernow gets pretty doctrinaire about how a fish sandwich should come together: Grilled fish with a blackening spice blend of dried thyme, onion and garlic powders, some paprika, cayenne and pepper; a slice of tomato (only in season); crisp lettuce; a thick smear of avocado; and a thin swipe of citrus-kissed mayonnaise (citrus aioli, if you're so inclined), all nestled into buttery bread. Nothing fancy, mind you—just precise.
And for the fish-cooking-phobics who wish to try it at home, he's got some advice: "The best possible thing you can do with fish is make sure any surface you're cooking on is piping, piping, PIPING hot, so you get that nice sear on it. Be generous with oil and just let it sit."
He continues: "The fear behind fish is that you're going to over- or undercook it. Is it easy to do that? Absolutely. Is it easy to cook a burger medium rare or medium well? No. Just throw a piece of fish on the grill (or cast iron or plancha) and try it. Unless you completely hammer it, you can always fix it with a little seasoning, oil or spice."
And the payoff is awfully satisfying. Make Chernow's blackened fish sando at home and sea for yourself.