It took at least half a dozen trips to the Tin Building, the new market and food hall at South Street Seaport presided over by the chef and restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten, before I noticed what was missing.
I’d eaten at least 80 different things, with stops at each of the restaurants (five if you count only places with actual chairs), counters (three) and bars (another three), as well as miscellaneous stalls and kiosks and so forth. I’d stared at the whole fish on ice at the retail seafood market and they’d stared back at me. I’d browsed the bottles and boxes and jars on the grocery shelves, and picked up some of my favorite chocolate bars from the small and nearly overwhelming candy shop, the Spoiled Parrot. I’d admired the expensively groomed dogs that stroll through it all with nonchalance. I’d found so much to see and to taste and to spend money on at the Tin Building (formally and pretentiously called The Tin Building by Jean-Georges) that it took me the longest time to realize that the place has no smell.
To be clear, a lot of the things I ate there smelled great when I got up close to them. When I slid my spoon through the soft lid of melted cheese on a bowl of onion soup at T. Brasserie, the air was filled with the marrow-warming aroma of late nights in Paris. Upstairs, at the Frenchman’s Dough, I ate a thin-crusted ricotta and fontina pizza fragrant with preserved lemons and fresh ones.
The Tin Building itself, though? It smells like nothing.
At one time it smelled like nothing else on earth. From 1907, when it was built to serve the country’s largest wholesale seafood market, until a fire gutted it in 1995, the building and the rest of the Fulton Fish Market reeked of exhaust, cigarettes, cigars, burning scrap wood, low tides, fresh pine pallets and all kinds of fish, not just today’s catch but — this is what a perfumer would call the aroma’s base note — scraps of catches from other days that had been hosed out of sight but not rinsed away.
When the market was relocated to the Bronx in 2005, the Tin Building didn’t make the trip. As a designated landmark, it couldn’t be torn down, either. Eventually the Howard Hughes Corporation, which leases the lot along with the rest of the Seaport from the city, hired SHoP Architects to design a new Tin Building on higher ground a few feet from the original site, incorporating pieces of the old structure that survived.
Inside this facsimile is a food hall with retail shopping and places to eat. European market halls are the obvious inspiration, but real public markets in Europe have more choices — you almost never see one with just one butcher, like the Tin Building. They’re also more chaotic — there are birds in the rafters and an edge of impatience in the vendors’ voices. A good market hall should smell a little, too, with suggestions of fermenting apples and blue cheese and the bleach used to scrub the floors at the end of the day.
You don’t get any of that at the Tin Building, for better or worse. The restaurants have a synthetic, studio-lot appearance, like the frozen-yogurt shops in “The Good Place.” The interior design, by Roman and Williams, is a shiny fantasy of a city built for consumers, with all the roots clipped off and the physical labor swept away, no doubt to the Bronx.
That said, the Tin Building does not underestimate its shoppers. Nor does it pander to tourists. Its retail markets upstairs sell about 5,000 products, high-quality staples alongside esoterica that you’ll find in few other places: fresh anchovies or an entire tuna head at the seafood counter; fresh ginger on the stalk in the produce department; sweetbreads and suckling pig at the butcher; jams from Alain Milliat on the left bank of the Rhône at Mercantile; South Korean mugwort vinegar at Mercantile East.
I will never, ever go to the Tin Building to shop for a week’s worth of groceries for me and the kids. But I will be back the next time I want to cook a meal that people will remember, or when I need a gift for somebody who’s not easy to impress.
The retail areas, clustered in the middle of the building, are almost absurdly well stocked with treats of one kind or another. The restaurants and takeout stalls are all over the place, literally and figuratively. Scattered around the outer walls, they vary widely in quality, although none is quite worth a trip on its own.
Not even T. Brasserie, the French restaurant. Mr. Vongerichten has never given us a whole menu of French classics, and now I guess we know why. The salads were spirited — Mr. Vongerichten is the Man of a Thousand Vinaigrettes — and the onion soup is stupendous. But pâté en croûte was crumbly and underseasoned, stewed white beans were crunchy and underdone, the fries were limp, and serving the cheeseburger on a puff-pastry bun seems like an odd gimmick.
Not that the food of cultures other than Mr. Vongerichten’s fares much better.
House of the Red Pearl is an excursion in Orientalism, so invested in clichés of the Mysterious East that its dining room is hidden behind a curtain in the back of the Asian grocery store. The space is Shanghai glam. The food looked handsome. The dumplings and pot stickers and spring rolls were on the right track. But the roast duck was tough, its skin not even close to crisp. Was the fried rice really fried? It was a soupy mess.
At the base of the escalators, you can get dosas from a takeaway kiosk that also makes crepes. (Its name: Crepes & Dosas.) There aren’t any Indian dosa fillings, like potato masala; most of the toppings are standard French ones like ham and cheese. If the whole point is to use lentils and rice flour to make gluten-free crepes, maybe it should have been called the Frenchman’s Dosa.
You’d be delighted to find a takeout counter like Taquito in an airport during a long layover, but out in the wild its small tacos on blue-masa tortillas are just OK — my “crispy Gulf flounder” wasn’t crisp at all, and the avocado crema was ladled on like whipped cream on a banana split.
Is Jean-Georges Vongerichten anybody’s idea of a go-to guy for tacos? Apparently he is for the Howard Hughes Corporation. In 2013, the City Council allowed the company to move ahead with plans for a market in the Tin Building provided it would offer “locally and regionally sourced food items that are sold by multiple vendors.” Nobody who knows what a real estate developer’s promises are worth will be surprised that we’ve been given a single vendor, selling Italian honey and Japanese tea.
A real public market, with roots in the Northeast and space for small businesses, would have supplied some of the authenticity the Tin Building lacks. (Who knows, it might have had a Chinese restaurant with a Chinese owner and Chinese chefs.) But if we must have a single vendor market, it’s hard to imagine a vendor better suited to the task than Mr. Vongerichten. He can’t do everything, it turns out. But he can do a lot more things than anyone else around, and do them with a light, playful spirit that’s tightly lashed to a fearsome talent for organization.
I’ve been twice to the Frenchman’s Dough and I haven’t tasted anything I didn’t like. The pizzas may not be very Italian, but they’re very good, dressed with a light hand and a strong instinct for flavors that want to be together, like brussels sprouts and bacon, or the more unlikely pairing of clams and broccoli. And the tangy, almost crumbly cheesecake baked in a wood-burning oven on the third floor is one of the best things in the whole building.
Seeds & Weeds is essentially a scaled-down, less scene-y version of abcV, the Manhattan restaurant where Mr. Vongerichten has shown the kids a thing or two about vegetables in an impressive late-career burst of creativity. I wish it didn’t look so much like the Pinterest page of a houseplant shop in Greenpoint. But the kitchen is full of smart ideas, like Japanese katsu made out of celery root, or canoes of grilled endives filled with rambutan, radishes and a tart peanut relish.
The sushi counter, Shikku, is not going to compete with such cloistered omakase parlors as Yoshino, but it makes a very strong case that reasonably priced, everyday sushi — almost a vanishing breed in the city — can be worthwhile if it’s made with care.
Like Shikku, the Fulton Fish Co. benefits from the top-flight seafood that the Tin Building gets, even though the days when fishing boats docked at the back door are long gone. You can sit at the marble counter and study the New England shellfish laid out on a runway of chipped ice before making your move: Freshly shucked scallops with housemade yuzukosho under a fan of vinegared cucumbers? Crunchy curls of octopus over a salad of citrus and green olives?
Whatever you get, it’s worth supplementing with thickly seeded fermented Danish rye and butter. Bread, baked upstairs in the commissary kitchen, is ome of the high points of the Tin Building wherever you see it. At the retail bakery, you can get a jump on tomorrow’s sandwiches with a loaf of sesame semolina. The housemade English muffins are probably the best thing about the egg-sandwich counter, Double Yolk, and the densely crusted walnut and dried fruit bread that comes with a cheese plate is one of the things that makes the low-key wine bar so rewarding.
I was drinking a cold glass of muscadet at that bar when Mr. Vongerichten stopped to chat. (By then I had spent so much time in the Tin Building that I was essentially a regular, greeted with a nod by hosts and bartenders.) I asked how he’d been coping with the labor shortage as he tried to assemble a full staff of 700 people. At the end of the month, the market, which has been on a reduced scheduled since opening in August, will finally go to seven days a week.
“I’ve been doing things I’ve never done before, hiring two people half-time when we wanted one full time,” he said.
We talked for a few minutes before he left to check on some detail somewhere. When he was gone, the air smelled like breath mints.