The Whale’s Tale

You have to get there pretty early to beat Fair Lawn’s Peter Panteleakis (a.k.a. Mr. Whale) to the best seafood at the Fulton Fish Market.

Peter Panteleakis, chef/owner of Oceanos in Fair Lawn, on his pre-dawn drive to the Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx.
Photo by Colin Archer/Agency New Jersey.

For most people, driving through the Bronx in the dead of night would be a test of nerves. At 1 am, the area just south of the Bruckner Expressway is a shadowy realm of warehouses, truck depots, wreck yards and dumps. It’s the kind of place where a Master of the Universe would have a Bonfire of the Vanities kind of nightmare, or where a young Marlon Brando might find himself in a tense situation in the back of a gangster’s car.

But for Peter Panteleakis, owner of Oceanos Restaurant in Fair Lawn, who makes the drive three or four early mornings a week, it’s like a jaunt to the mall. He steers his Jeep Cherokee through the desolate landscape nonchalantly, pointing out the sights, such as they are. A sign for Hunts Point Avenue, home of the famous all-night produce market. A McDonald’s, where they recently filmed a rap video. That’s about it, until we enter a big fenced parking lot, get out of the car and walk toward a building with all the personality of an airport hangar.

But inside—inside is a different story.

This is the Fulton Fish Market, the nexus of all fishmongering in the New York metropolitan area. It’s a football-field sized refrigerator of a place, lit up like Times Square, where a city of men go about buying, selling, filleting, packaging and moving thousands of pounds of fish while the rest of the city sleeps. For a newcomer, hazards keep you on your toes: Forklifts scuttle around the wet floor in unexpected directions like sand crabs, and big hooks probe for fish in blocks of ice. But there is also the splendor of all that glistening seafood. Swordfish, it turns out, are not merely steaks packaged in styrofoam and plastic, but formerly living things the size of fifth-graders. Four-pound lobsters look like they might break into a song from The Little Mermaid.

Like all wholesale markets, it’s a world where vast amounts of money change hands with little more than a nod. Panteleakis drops $15,000 to $20,000 here each week.

Just a few hours earlier, the restaurateur, 65, who grew up in the town of Krokees in southern Greece and went scuba diving for squid as a 13-year-old, was wearing a suit. That’s how he shows respect to his customers. At the Fulton Market, Panteleakis wears a red-and-black checked jacket and a cap from a hunting trip in Argentina. It is hard to keep up with him as he strides through the market, glancing down at the fish, occasionally stopping to poke a red snapper or take the lid off a plastic container of fresh crabmeat and lift it to his nose. All the while, he’s cracking open unshelled peanuts—a nightly offering from Montauk Seafood—and popping them in his mouth. He can look almost stern surveying the merchandise, as befits someone who demands only the best quality seafood and never asks price. But when he stops to talk to a dealer, he breaks into an easy grin.

“I like to bullshit with the fishermen,” says Panteleakis, who retains the Greek accent of his childhood. “You’re laughing here. You say jokes.” He is affectionately called Mr. Whale by both the vendors and other buyers, a reference to his former restaurant, Peter’s Whale, predecessor to Oceanos. His son Nikos, who owns Taverna Mykonos in Elmwood Park and who has tagged along to the Fulton Market since he was about 12, is affectionately called “Little Whale.”

This morning, Little Whale is the one with the checkbook. Mr. Whale says a word or two to one of the vendors, who scribble on little notepads with yellow and pink carbons, and Nikos settles up inside a glass booth. That’s it. No price tags, no scales, and certainly no haggling.

“If you ask prices,” says Panteleakis, “you never get the quality you want.”

When the Panteleakises first started shopping at the Fulton Fish Market, it was on Fulton Street in lower Manhattan. That bazaar, which was outdoors, makes the current one look like Neiman Marcus. Father and son talk about how the fishermen used to burn old corrugated boxes in trash barrels to warm themselves in winter. The market moved to the $86 million facility in the Bronx in 2005.

It’s a history father and son share with many of the fishermen and buyers who meet nightly in the Bronx. Mr. Whale hugs Joe Grippa at Universal Seafood after learning that he has just married off his granddaughter. He also has a hearty greeting for Andreas Skenderis, a former professional basketball player in Greece, who owns Taverna Kyclades in Astoria. At one point, someone stops to introduce Panteleakis to a newcomer, and there’s happy laughter. “Hello Mr. Whale. I have another Greek over here!”

Mr. Whale and Little Whale stop to buy swordish and Chilean sea bass from Tim Wilkinson, who runs his own concession in association with Crown Fish, and, like Nikos, has been coming to the market since he was 5. Now Wilkinson’s son, 15, is there helping out. Tim Wilkinson is a huge fan of the Panteleakises, and like many of the vendors, also drives to Fair Lawn to dine at Oceanos.

“I know him a million years,” he says. “These guys, when it’s not great, they won’t buy it.” He adds that Panteleakis has a reputation among fish sellers that is legendary; even Le Bernardin is not so well regarded.

But how do you tell great? Panteleakis can discern it without breaking stride. He passes boxes piled with swordfish and wrinkles his nose. “Don’t look at it. It’s bad quality. It’s a month old.” Some calamari is dismissed as too small. And then there’s red snapper that doesn’t even merit discussion. “Forget about it.”
Panteleakis walks a few feet, finds a box of red snapper that meets his standards and—for demonstration purposes—pokes it with his index finger. It resists; that’s good. “Look at the eyes,” he adds, perceiving brightness and clarity. “Fresh fish does not smell,” he adds. “If you go to a restaurant and smell fish, it’s something fishy.” He breaks into an impish smile at his own joke.

It’s not just the way fish looks or feels. It’s the source. Oceanos and Taverna Mykonos together buy half the dayboat scallops fished in New Jersey. Dayboat scallops (click here to read story) are brought to market nightly; regular scallops are held on boats during dredging expeditions that can last up to 10 days. “These scallops, they’re still alive,” Panteleakis says, reaching into a bin and popping one raw into his mouth.

He admits that he could do all his ordering by phone. After all, he pays a delivery service to bring the fish to his restaurant at dawn, and all the vendors know him and his impeccable standards. “I don’t have to be here,” he says. But it’s that constant presence over 40 years that guarantees he’s taken seriously. Or as Nikos says, “You’ve got to show face.”

It’s also a way of enforcing those standards. Mr. Whale and Little Whale have one unpleasant errand on this particular trip. Recently a batch of lobsters came to the restaurant DOA—dead on arrival. As Panteleakis prepares to visit the vendor, he smiles conspiratorially to Nikos and me. “I punish,” he whispers. But his punishment is gentle. He walks over to the 85-year-old seller, puts his hand on his shoulder, leans in to quietly explain about the dead lobsters and asks for a refund. The punishment? Not buying anything from the guy this evening.

Business at the Fulton Fish Market is over for the Whales by 3 am—that’s when, in their opinion, the lazier and less exacting buyers begin to arrive. Then there’s a quick jaunt to the meat market nearby. Afterwards, there’s a reverse trip through the squid-ink darkness of the Bronx and across the George Washington Bridge until we wind up at the 4 West Diner in Englewood.

There, Panteleakis orchestrates the meal, ordering a salad for the table, and then explaining to the waitress exactly how to prepare the eggs for an omelet. The directions are explicit because Nikos has just told a story about one of his father’s omelets, a concoction so fluffy and perfect he almost didn’t want to destroy it with knife and fork. This omelet has—like so many of Panteleakis’s culinary creations—entered into family lore, an omelet to be discussed over and over. It is a small but poignant demonstration of father-son bonding, almost as if they were talking about a foul ball caught at Yankee Stadium.

Then it’s back home to Upper Saddle River, where Nikos will sleep for a few hours. When I get home half an hour later, I’ll dive under the covers and pass out for a good five hours. But for Mr. Whale, it’s back to Oceanos’s spotless stainless steel kitchen, where he has bread to bake—he makes 80 loaves daily—plus phyllo dough nests to shape for shrimp and desserts.

Sleep? That’s for lesser mortals. The owner of Oceanos will be happy if he gets a nap. “Forty-five minutes,” he says with a smile, “is enough until tomorrow.”

When we see the seafood and Panteleakis again at Oceanos, both are dressed up. The scallops, now seasoned and seared, sit like plump princes on individual cushions of cooked spinach. Shrimp form a circle, heads all bowed toward the center of the angular New Wave dinnerware, as if in silent devotion. Strips of swordfish nestle on a crisp wonton. Even the lemon is presented like something in an Easter basket: wrapped in yellow cheesecloth and tied with a green ribbon.

Apparently Panteleakis—dressed for lunch in a pink sweater and tan dinner jacket—saw this all along, even in the Bronx. “Before you start, you have to know how it comes on the plate,” he says. “You use your eyes and your imagination.”

Click on the links below to read more from our Seafood Lovers’ Guide:

Sea Power
For quality and quantity, the ocean is one of the Garden State’s richest gardens.

Delights From The Deep
Do you think the wonders of the Shore end at bodysurfing distance from the beach? Of course not. Another world entirely begins there—the cornucopian world of Jersey seafood. Here is a foretaste of the riches that Jersey fishermen, plying coastal waters, bring to our docks on a daily basis.

Our Favorite NJSeafood Restaurants
Seafood is a given on virtually every restaurant menu, but some places pride themselves on providing a broad range of the very freshest catch. Here are some of our favorites, with a few words on what to expect. If none of these float your boat, there’s always sushi.

Shell Game
Scallop fishermen, working like dogs, haul in Jersey’s most valuable seafood crop. A day on the job with the crew of the scallop boat Lucky Thirteen.

Click here to leave a comment
Click to enlarge images
Read more Jersey Living articles.

By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.