Forget your sabred champagne bottles, your sizzling steaks, your croquembouche pyramids: when it’s time to go all out at a restaurant, to be big and loud and celebratory, the answer is a seafood tower. These tiered plateaus of crushed ice, their rising stories chockablock with fruits de mer and accessories thereto, are at once sophisticated and garish—the sweet, saline subtlety of chilled seafood; the shameless absurdity of its architectural opulence. It’s arguable that the tower’s verticality is essential to its allure: a spread of oysters and cocktail shrimp at table level is just a bunch of lovely appetizers; stack them to the stars, and you’ve instantly turned your Thursday afternoon into an occasion. The city abounds with fine seafood towers, especially at Martini-minded restaurants above a certain price point, though there can be a sameness to them, a repetitive haze of mignonette and gently melting ice. Here are three that stand out.
The Seafood Plateau at Delmonico’s
One of the city’s oldest restaurants, which recently reopened after a three-year hiatus and a change in ownership, understands that when we pass through its dramatically colonnaded doorway we do so in pursuit of spectacle. Their seafood plateau (priced per person, at fifty-nine dollars a head) is a colossal object; on a recent visit, its arrival was preceded by a crack team of servers who swiftly converted our square table to a round to make enough room. The tower’s two levels land in a theatrical swirl of dry ice, its white mist cascading across the tablecloth and rolling away into nothingness. The presentation comprises tender oysters individually anointed with passion-fruit mignonette and champagne gelée, and a portion of that day’s crudo—yellowtail with avocado and shoyu, say, or scallops in yuzu—mountained into abalone shells; arranged in a sybaritic tangle are chilled lobsters, one for every two participants, halved to reveal the white meat of the body, the silken claws already denuded of their shells. Amid all the pageantry, there’s a refreshing starkness to what are simply the biggest cocktail shrimp I’ve ever seen. Approximately the size of carrots, they are as saline and sweet as they are ludicrously large.
Suvannamaccha’s Offering at Thai Diner
Nothing about Nolita’s Thai Diner is undertaken in half measures, least of all the restaurant’s sumptuous, tropicalian seafood plateau. It’s named for a figure from the Thai Ramayana—a golden mermaid and princess of the seas, who opposed Hanuman and later became his lover—and is a riotous array of shelled and tentacled delights, garnished with orchid blossoms and wedges of fruit. The double-decker tower bears a scallop crudo with lemongrass and octopus in a red-bean-curd dressing. A trio of condiments, including a brilliantly tart tom-yum cocktail sauce and a sharp ginger aioli, can be applied as you like to tender oysters; tremendous, meaty mussels; and a kingly portion of crab claws. For an extra Benjamin you can add a third tier, bearing a chilled lobster, a pot of caviar, and a round of shots for the table, but if you’ve got that kind of money to throw around, I’d just order a second Suvannamaccha.
The Lowbrow Tower at Grand Army Bar
This chill Brooklyn cocktail bar has a terrific shellfish-focussed menu, the jewel of which is the Lowbrow Tower: an almost confrontationally minimalist, zero-drama seafood plateau. No fuss, no glitz, no cascading jumble of claws and tails—just a tidy arrangement of oysters, littleneck clams (their brawny salinity constrained by a tart scallion-chili condiment), and four neatly curled cocktail shrimp. What makes this tiered assembly so brilliant is the addition of devilled eggs, four of them, piped high with yellow yolk that’s been blended with soy and sesame, and then topped with a dollop of salty trout roe. Eating a seafood tower is usually a collective undertaking, but the Lowbrow makes a perfect solo dinner, consumed seated at the bar, with one of the establishment’s clever themed cocktails close at hand (the current selection is inspired by the movie “Mean Girls”). The tower’s slightly bigger counterpart, the Highbrow, adds tuna tartare and an entire lobster roll sandwich but, unforgivably, loses the devilled eggs in the upgrade. ♦