Searching for New York's Best Shrimp Cocktails
Plus, reviews of the sizzling garlic shrimp at Claud and the red prawns at Mercado Little Spain
On Monday, when the city felt like a pair of wet gym shorts with a half-eaten protein bar melting in the left pocket, I dropped by Claud in the East Village. It’s one of those pricey wine bars where the host tells you it’s going to be an hour wait — and then you get sat at a cramped counter with a lovely view of the wall.
At least this is not, thank Dionysius, a place to get shaken down for a Heat Wave Classic, a tin of sardines and a glass of rosé that runs, like, fifty bucks.
You go to the year-old Claud for some of the city’s best new small plates — dishes that don’t sit too heavy in the stomach on these 90-degree days. You book a table for ex-Momofuku chef Joshua Pinsky’s kampachi collar, the rich, gelatinous flesh rubbed with smoky harissa. You come for the savory mille feuille, a small skyscraper’s worth of laminated dough interspersed with tart tomatoes and stinky Moses Sleeper cheese — all oozing out the sides as if this were some sort of avant-garde lasagna.
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And most of all, you find a way into into Claud for the sizzling skillet shrimp. It’s like none I’ve ever had.
Gambas al ajillo doesn’t typically make its way onto the menus of fancy, French-y spots. This staple Spanish tapas dish usually involves tossing a few run-of-the-mill shrimp into a pan with an absurd amount of garlic and olive oil. Like with a spicy tuna roll, the point isn’t deploying pristine ingredients; the point is indulgent, affordable, over-the-top pleasure.
But here, Pinsky makes a chic version work ($27). He places four fat Argentinian red shrimp into a wicked hot skillet; a pool of oil sizzles and pops like lava. The bottom half of each crustacean is caramelized and salty; the top half is medium rare and soft. And the flesh packs a distinct coastal punch that recalls good red mullet. You gobble this all up, then dredge hot sourdough through the oil before smearing a sweet clove of garlic on top. Pair with a faintly sweet and electrically zingy German riesling ($18) from co-owner Chase Sinzer’s list.
It’s all spectacular enough to draw me in for an early 5:00 p.m. seating, when walk-ins have a nice shot at a window seat, or possibly even a spot at the roomier chef’s counter. And the fancy gambas serve as a reminder that if you look in the right places, the state of shrimp in New York is strong right now.
Though it could be even stronger.
Let’s go eat some shrimp cocktail this summer!
The fun thing about searching for good shrimp or prawns is how chefs exploit these fine decapods — who doesn’t love exploiting a fine decapod? — to show off all their wild textures and flavors.
I like how a quick steam lets the glossy shrimp in har gow pop like a fresh grape. And I like how spot prawns at sushi counters glide down your throat like jelly. I think about how Tatiana’s head-on shrimp pack a steak-like heft, and how Yi Ji Shi Mo’s tiny dried shrimp kiss their fragrant rice rolls with a touch of brine.
At Ensenada, one of the city’s top modern Mexican spots, small blue shrimp stand up to the brooding warmth of al pastor spices. At Mercado Little Spain by José Andrés, the gambas rojas almost dissolve on the tongue without a chew.
And then there’s shrimp cocktail.
Chilled shrimp, the kind you’ll find at a steakhouse or tavern for $30 or so, generally operate within a fairly neutral flavor profile. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I love how the sweet, icy fleshiness of court bouillon-poached crustaceans helps cool you down on a hot day. I love how horseradish-flecked cocktail sauce jolts you from a heat-induced stupor.
Shrimp cocktail nicely fills in a gap when you need something more substantial than oysters, yet less heavy than a burger. It allows your martini to hit quickly, but not too quickly. It’s sufficiently fancy to let your brain know you’re treating yourself, though it isn’t caviar-level expensive. Sometimes, it’s just right.
Still, I have a gripe: As a growing cadre of restaurants add shrimp cocktail to their menus, perhaps in an effort to use easy nostalgia as a crutch — perhaps to sell something they can charge a lot for — I wish more chefs leaned harder into what these fine shellfish are capable of (leaving on the gooey heads would be good start).
So when you read (or more realistically, scan) this list below, keep in mind that I favor shrimp cocktails that don’t shy away from “shrimpier” flavors — or creative tweaks.
We all experience nostalgia differently, but I don’t really get swept away in carbon copies of classic recipes. Instead, I find myself transported more deeply by dishes that loosely reference the past. It’s those edgier preparations that let me, the individual diner, connect the dots to my own specific memories, rather than shoving me toward some bland, collective vision of yesteryear, clogged with watery shrimp.