As a connoisseur of food courts I was dying to check out the Tin Building. This latest addition to the Seaport was masterminded by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and as operator of a behemoth collection of over 35 restaurants spanning the globe, his ability to marshal culinary resources and plot floor plans is undeniable. In fact, six full-blown restaurants and four casual dining options are found in the Tin Building alone, plus beer and wine bars, presided over by newly hired chefs, and often those from his 12 restaurants on loan to help with training and opening.
I was also curious because the building housed the Fulton Fish Market from 1939 to 2005, a site of early morning pilgrimage for all would-be chefs. Would the slick food court — two levels in a pale stately structure — do the building’s piscine heritage justice?
During the preview weeks the Tin Building has only been open Thursday through Sunday afternoons, when I visited three times. Arriving at noon each day, I witnessed Vongerichten himself greeting the snaking line of early arrivals by clapping his hands, the applause echoed by employees inside standing at attention.
The Tin Building reminded me of our first Eataly, replicating its challenging maze-like arrangement, while striking a balance between groceries and prepared foods on one hand, and eateries on the other. The groceries run to meat, cheese, and fish on separate counters; fresh fruits and vegetables displayed in crates; a candy and ice cream store; a pair of pastry and bread bakeries; and a reach-in fridge featuring different kinds of French and Irish butter. A string of cases displays prepared foods for carryout and reheating in a Middle Eastern, Thai, soul food, and Chinese American vein, among other categories.
Additionally, there are two grocery stores on the second floor, one Asian the other European and American, approached via an escalator lit with colorful neon, giving your ascent a theme-park air. Could a wealthy person do all their grocery shopping here? Probably not, due to the absence of practical things like baking soda and toilet paper. But for food? Perhaps.
I’d stopped on my way that first day to buy a BEC ($4.75) at a bodega, to see how the version offered at the Tin Building compared. Double Yolk announces itself with a yellow neon sign, and the menu directs customers to choose items from four categories to assemble an egg sandwich. The classic bacon, egg, and cheese ($13) features very yellow eggs cooked into a fluffy omelet, thick double-smoked bacon in short strips, and mild cheddar on a brioche. In contrast to the bodega version, the eggs dominate.
Yes, it was utterly delectable, though it lacked the agreeable plainness of the original, which can be eaten nearly every day without meal fatigue. After 5 p.m., the counter turns into a champagne and caviar bar.
I’d gone with a friend, and we threaded our way through the swelling crowd past T Cafe and Bakery, displaying over a dozen types of bread, some enormous loaves of whole-grain sourdough, others baguettes pointy at both ends with crusts a little on the tough side. We tried a larger-than-average croissant and found it good, but our favorite was a super-buttery Danish filled with rich custard that visibly quaked as you ate it.
Our next destination was a station without any seating called Crepes and Dosas. We were excited about the latter, but the southern Indian flatbread took a back seat to the crepes, for which there was a catalog of sweet and savory fillings. No Indian fillings aimed at the dosa were offered. The dosa itself was perfect — crisp on the bottom, cushiony on top, and slightly sour — and we ate it with a cheese, egg, and avocado filling, craving the conventional potatoes masala.
Afterward we rode the escalator upstairs, where we examined the two grocery areas, and noted many high-end varieties of olive oil and soy sauce, among other mainly luxury products (including cheese straws sold in paint cans), and looked for the Tin Building’s Chinese restaurant. We couldn’t find it, and peered in the door of a video studio instead. This all by way of getting some exercise before heading downstairs to T Brasserie for our biggest meal of the day.
Offering views of South Street and the overhead FDR, the brasserie is smaller than most and also more studiously elegant. The menu is compact, too, featuring Gallic standards with a few seasonal Americanisms (like heirloom tomato salad) thrown in. We made a splendid meal of a dark and gooey onion soup, a fresh-tasting tartare topped with a quail egg yolk, and a handful of snails in herb-laced butter that was an arresting shade of green. Next visit, the hamburger beckons.
We swung by the patisserie brimming with brightly colored fruit tarts, fondant-clad cakes, cupcakes with elaborate frostings, cookies, and pies that looked dull by comparison. But they would have to wait for another day; we simply didn’t have any more room in our stomachs.
On our next visit my friend and I literally ran up the escalator to the second floor, because we’d managed to find out where the Chinese restaurant was and feared not getting a seat. We made our way through a curtained door marked only with a tiny red fan at the rear of the Asian grocery.
The House of the Red Pearl turned out to be a rather grand room with booths and circular tables featuring low-slung plush seating and perhaps too many hanging lamps — very cocktail lounge-y. As we sat ourselves at the bar, the bartender told us in what seemed to be scripted remarks that the place was intended to evoke the world of James Bond in Dr. No, and indeed the staff wears stiff Mao-style military jackets. (Indeed, all of the employees at the Tin Building wear carefully conceived costumes, from the pink jumpsuits in the candy store to the long aprons of T Brasserie.)
While the decor is supposed to look retro, the menu is very much a modern one, filled with faultlessly prepared dishes. We ate our way through the usual soy-marinated cucumber salad, Sichuan wontons filled with shrimp and pork, an egg-drop soup heaped with greens, a version of Chongqing chicken that seemed too oniony and moist, excellent steamed pea shoots that swan in butter teeming with crunchy shallots and caramelized garlic, and, best of all, a wok-fried cumin lamb that may be the best version in NYC of this adapted Uyghur dish. We left $135 poorer, feeling like House of the Red Pearl was the most ambitious restaurant in the Tin Building, and maybe the best. But the theme made us slightly uneasy.
We next got a pair of shaved beef a la plancha tacos ($12), one of five choices at the Taquito window, right next to the beer bar overlooking the main entrance. The blue corn tortillas were dark and flavorful, but there was only one per taco, making the tacos quickly disintegrate. The avocado-cucumber crema was a nice touch but the sliced beef wasn’t quite right for a taco.
This was only a prelude to sliding downstairs to the Fulton Fish Co., a single row of seats that arcs along a raw bar with a luscious display of seafood — the dining option that does the most to evoke the building’s storied past. We enjoyed a taste of each of the oysters, two from Prince Edward Island, four from Massachusetts, as well as a lobster roll ($26) in which the meat was a little overcooked. The jewel of our visit was a pair of razor clams, served in their finger-like shells decorated with herbs and microgreens. Each bite was firm-fleshed and sweet — heavenly!
Afterward, we sought out the sushi bar Shikku, hidden in a dark corner just beyond the candy store. There was no one there except the lonely itamae, so we decided to skip it. We did stop at the bakery on the way out for a black-and-white cookie ($3.75), invented to celebrate Henry Hudson’s voyage up the river that came to bear his name. The cake was a little dull and dry; the fondant too thinly applied.
On the third day I was on my own, scrambling to visit attractions at the Tin Building I’d heretofore neglected. Seeds and Weeds is the unappetizing name for the Tin Building’s mainly vegan restaurant, which has a wall with windows facing the rest of the food court, making it feel like a self-contained establishment. It has a menu that might remind you of Vongerichten’s ABCV, and the food is every bit as good. It provides two more uses for the dosas available downstairs, including one stuffed with eggs, cheddar, and sambal. On a menu that extends to 16 dishes, some highlight mushrooms, others grains. There’s a bread service centered on a blue corn and einkorn-wheat sourdough loaf, as well as a few dips.
One of those pita swishers is called Jimmy Nardello and hazelnut dip ($15), which made me think Jimmy might be an old pal of Vongerichten’s — it turned out to be a fruity red frying pepper, with coarsely ground nuts that made a crunchy dip something like Balkan ajvar. I also tried sweet-corn wontons, which echoed the dumplings found in the House of the Red Pearl, only tumbling out kernels into a broth with some serious and surprising Sichuan peppercorn action.
I scampered to the other side of the second floor to try Frenchman’s Dough, which is Vongerichten’s ode to the New York pizza and pasta joint. There is a snaking seating area that generally surrounds a flaming oven, but I sat at the cocktail bar adjacent, where the full menu is available. My starter of tuna tartare was ho-hum, but my pizza — chosen from a list of five that were conventionally Italian, was the only one that I might have called a French pizza. On a pleasantly puffy crust, charred here are there, thin slices of cured lemon were planted on a carpet of ricotta, fontina, and parmesan. At first I wasn’t sure about this pizza oddity ($18), but when I got the leftovers home — the cold slices were fantastic.
Still feeling a bit peckish I descended the glowing escalator one last time, and stepped up to the sandwich counter, which featured a very plain little eating area adjacent. Turkey and roast beef sandwiches led the menu, presumably aimed at the business lunch-break crowd. I knew that if I searched long enough at Tin Building, I would find nearly every dish made famous by our fast-casual culture — and here was the fried chicken sandwich ($15) I knew would be somewhere in the complex. This one, on the same brioche as the BEC that started my Tin Building adventure, featured a thin but very crisp cutlet.
Like any food court, Tin Building offers very good as well as some mediocre food. But I’d have to say the average is higher here than many other food courts in town, with some outliers like the lemon pizza, snails in herb butter, cumin lamb, and custard danish that you wouldn’t find anywhere else all in one place, and are by themselves worth a visit.