It seems that Marc "Landmarc" Murphy's new West Village fish shack, Ditch Plains, has been getting some mixed reviews -- for two examples, the Times review was largely negative and Andrea Strong had some reservations as well.
Nonetheless, I thought I would try it: I am a big fan of Landmarc, a restaurant which I believe can do no wrong.
In my opinion, Ditch Plains cannot either.
The initial complaints seem to have largely revolved around 2 things: a) that the restaurant is somehow "too expensive" for a "fish shack" and b) that its lobster roll is terrible.
With respect to the first complaint, I am somewhat baffled. Appearance-wise, Ditch Plains is compact, sure, and it has wooden booths that echo a fish shack rather than a white tablecloth type of restaurant. But it also has a large, well-stocked bar and brushed sheet metal on the walls. It has appropriate lighting, a lively bar, and a welcoming, extremely friendly staff. Our waiter was one of the absolute best I have had in the city in quite some time, and she captured the overall theme of the place perfectly-- friendly, welcoming, casual, knowledgable and in no way second-rate. In short, Ditch Plains was exactly what I hoped it would be - a fish shack that retained a lot of the positive features of Landmarc. A place that is not fussy, or pretentious, or precious, but that serves excellent food and adheres to the Landmarc-style wine program and what I consider a Landmarc-style vision of what a restaurant should and should not be.
As for the food, it is not, by Manhattan (especially seafood) standards expensive. The much-maligned lobster roll is market priced in the $20s, but all other items, including excellent mussels that can be paired with a variety of broths, fall at or under the $15 line. I don't know how many have had the misfortune of being in the Red Lobster in Times Square lately, but its prices hover right around there too, and it's a Red Lobster.
We had the lobster roll, the mussels, a side of asparagus and the spicy calamari salad. I like the salad best-- genuinely spicy but not overwhelming, with nicely fried calamari on top of a mix of greens. The asparagus and the mussels were excellent renditious of each, and the lobster roll...
is a lobster roll. As with a lot of things I read about on this board and other food boards, I am kind of baffled by Manhattanites' obsession with "comfort food," especially expensive comfort food, often contorted into freakish variations on an original theme. That is to say, a lobster roll is a lobster roll. It is lobster and mayonnaise, on a roll, which hopefully is properly toasted. It is not a very interesting dish, and not one that in my opinion deserves the attention devoted to it.
But a good lobster roll is delicious, and I think the version at Ditch Plains certainly is. It has a tinge of curry flavor, which some may find unappealing, but that I found interesting. If anything, I'd think it was just the kind of variation Manhattanites would like. It was not overwhelmed by mayonnaise, and I had no problem with the bun. I wouldn't start a chain of restaurants devoted to this dish, but if you are savvy enough to ignore the naysayers and go to Ditch Plains, and you in fact would like to enjoy a lobster roll, then this is a perfectly good one.
The wine list is Landmarc-style. Wines are priced at about what a good wine store charges, though selection is much more limited than at Landmarc. Unlike Landmarc (whose mediocre glassware is perhaps one of my few quibbles with the place), wines are served casually in stemless wine glasses (ie, they are wine glasses, not merely drinking glasses). I liked the St. Henri Shiraz (at $44 the second most expensive bottle on the menu, I think) and the Dashwood cellars Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, but I am sure you can't go wrong with anything there. They also make a "spicy Corona" drink that features Corona beer, tequila and hot sauce in a salted pint glass, which I am dying to try and will be sure to be back for.
Our server gave us a free slice of key lime pie, along with the Times reviewer's much-maligned bottle of whipped cream. I found the pie absolutely delicious--perfectly balanced between tart and sweet--and I found the whipped cream can endearing. Again-- this is a casual restaurant, casually priced. It serves lobster rolls and mussels and burgers- not haute cuisine. Those who don't like whipped cream cans on their table should probably avoid this restaurant, as well as any real fish shack (as I assure you, this restaurant is much, much classier than that which it tries it emulate).
Our check came. I think it was about $100 or so for 2, but that included the most expensive item on the menu and a $44 bottle of wine. It was a lot of fun, and it certainly was not, in my opinion, unreasonably priced, especially for food.
I liked Ditch Plains so much, in fact, that I was back for brunch. Again, I invested more heavily than some might in alcohol-- the bloody marys are $12 and they are fantastic. The food all comes in under $10 per item, and there is a reasonable selection of the usual breakfast favorites, including customizable omelettes (mine had egg white, chorizo, tomato and mozzarella). A warning again to those who hate whipped cream cans on their table- they serve coffee in paper cups, too.
It is true: all the paper cups and whipped cream cans in the world won't make Ditch Plains feel like a proper fish shack on the beach, and it probably costs a few dollars more than a fish shack in, say, Virginia Beach or the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
But Ditch Plains isn't on a beach-- it's in the West Village of Manhattan-- and it's a lot of fun. If there is any upside to the negative buzz, I guess it will keep the crowd down a bit: Like Landmarc (for under 6), Ditch Plains does not accept reservations.