Some restaurants are utterly predictable -- the clientele, the specials, even the service. There is a certain joy in that predictability, a "Cheers" kind of joy where you're sure to experience familiar relaxing rituals night after night. The Bubbly Mermaid is not that restaurant. It is more like "Serendipity," an unexpected collusion of chance and happy coincidence.
On my first visit to the Mermaid, I was driving with my friend Jen down Fifth Avenue. She happened to glance at the vehicle next to her and recognized a truckful of friends who I hadn't seen in months. We gestured for them to follow us and they did, turning our cozy little twosome into a rollicking crowd.
Owner/champagne dispenser Apollo Naff swears that he has squeezed 40 people onto the Mermaid's decks, but 15 seemed like crowded quarters. Usually I would find this shoulder-to-shoulder proximity unbearable, but here it is charming. Naff slings drinks from the captain's helm, soliciting diners to pass down glasses if you happen to be sitting towards the prow.
No, I'm not taking the nautical metaphor a little too far. Naff has constructed a bar beautifully modeled after a ship. The communal seating ensures that guests don't remain strangers for long.
In fact, two minutes after we received our appetizers, a woman sitting across from us asked if she could try our smoked kippered herring spread ($9). We immediately said yes; the woman and her friends were sailors, and who knows if we might have need of them in the future?
Or, as Jen said, "Of course! We're all in the same boat." (Yes, this restaurant inspires that kind of punnery. Worse, it encourages it.) They responded in kind by sharing a glass of champagne with us. By the end of the night, we were exchanging phone numbers and vowing to meet again the next time they came into harbor.
The Mermaid thrives on simplicity. Naff is the server, bartender, cashier and host. The beer and wine menu is no respecter of labels: Wine by the glass costs $7, bubbly is $7, French bubbly $12, beer $6. It sounds crazy, but it works. The single-page menu is similarly abbreviated. Northwest oysters are the star (Alaska whenever Naff can get them), hailing from Halibut Cove, Kachemak Bay and Washington.
Each oyster is $3 and can be prepared one of 10 ways. There are the standards, such as Rockefeller and Casino, and the imaginative. Naff's hometown is Tijuana, which explains the Mexicana, a combination of chorizo, mornay sauce and Parmesan. The chorizo was delicious and intriguing, as were the Oscar (crab, asparagus and bearnaise) and classic Rockefeller (spinach, bacon, mushroom and Parmesan cheese), but the oysters are incredible on their own. Naff stocks a plethora of hot sauces and offers a bracing mignonette sauce, cocktail sauce and fresh horseradish.
Chefs Eddie Wadin and Mike Hauck also prepare catch of the day variations with seared scallops in Alaska-made umami sauce ($13), smoked salmon Caesar salad ($9) and crab cakes ($13). My friend and I shared an oyster po' boy ($13), crunchy breaded oysters swaddled in crisp vegetables and tender baguette.
A few days later I met another friend for an impromptu glass of champagne after work. The place was crowded (an easy feat), but again I felt like I was walking into a casual cocktail party. Naff has worked hard to create a certain ambiance and has succeeded; the lights are set to the perfect dimness and the music is sultry Spanish serenades.
I had a bowl of the seafood chowder ($7) and a glass of the Nicolas Feuillatte. The soup was rich with tender chunks of fish and grassy notes of dill. The bubbly made even this simple meal feel elegant and celebratory. We had just ordered our second glass when a friend and her husband popped in, so we changed our order to a bottle and decided to get dessert as well.
The Bubbly Mermaid is a siren call to revelry and indulgence, and your passage is always booked.
By Riza Brown
Daily News correspondent