When you first walk in, Chubby Fish is reminiscent of an Apple store. While both are white and airy, the vibe has little to do with aesthetics. Rather, there’s the same busy, buzzy energy and the feeling of too many people happily packed into a table-filled space. Once inside, a man quickly approaches to explain The Process. For reasons that aren’t quite clear, rather than be seated at a table, The Process dictates you go to the back of the restaurant, study the chalkboard menu above and then approach the cash register to order everything from drinks to dessert. When we struggled to come to a quick, unanimous decision, we were then told we could order drinks, sit down and a waiter would help us. Hmm. Then why the whole initial ‘order at the counter’ thing? The mind boggles.
While the system is confusing, the menu is not. There are raw bar dishes along with small plates, entrees, and landlubber friendly options, plus limited beer and wine selections.
The first small plate, a pork belly and stone fruits melange ($16) is topped with mint and cilantro, as well as jalapeno slices, peanuts, and lime. South Carolina by way of Vietnam, it’s a light and unexpected combination that works. With a nice balance of both flavors and textures, it almost doesn’t need the pork. Almost.
Next up, the octo salad ($14) is colorful and summery. Tender octopus slices mingle with fresh corn, purple onion slices, butter beans, and bright red bits of hot chili pepper. The portion isn’t large — small plates, indeed — but what’s there is bright and balanced.
In kind, the chili garlic shrimp ($18) is a standout dish. Rich and spicy, there’s an almost meaty, chorizo-like quality to the flavorful sauce. Greasy and satisfying, the six plump shrimp are garnished with cilantro and green onion and plated on rice, a rare — and most welcome — carb.
Seating is limited to just a few tables, plus a few chairs at a bar facing a kitchen. As the night wore on, more and more people arrived to survey the chalkboard menu and wait for a coveted spot. Soon, the place was packed so full that the walls seemed about to burst, as you might see in an old cartoon when Popeye and Bluto are battling it out inside a small house. Not surprisingly, it’s also loud as all hell. At one point someone dropped their silverware, and half the crowd jumped as if a bomb had gone off. We were seated at the communal table — something I happen to dread — but thankfully it was way too loud for anyone else to try to interact with us.
Food writer Mark Bittman once called mackerel the Rodney Dangerfield of fish — it gets no respect. A fan of small fishies, I often show it love when it’s available. Nonetheless, the smoked mackerel curry ($18) just didn’t work for me. Spicy and smoky, the fishiness of the meat is pronounced in the hot green curry. Also made with soft eggplant and peanuts and topped with fresh cilantro and mint, it’s plated on overly soft, soggy rice. All told, it’s odd and the only dish we didn’t finish, leaving the majority behind when we left.
Since they were out of the triggerfish with crushed potatoes and hollandaise ($26), the man behind the register recommended the whole rainbow trout ($28). Perfectly cooked and sporting attractive grill marks, the fish is topped with a chunky, Vietnamese-esque sauce of lime, green onions, and ginger. Loaded with sharp pin bones, it’s also a beast to share and a bit unladylike to savor; expect to be doing some fishing in your own mouth. The dish is lovely, but I couldn’t help but wish Chubby Fish offered some options for sides. Some of those crushed potatoes (not to mention hollandaise) sure sounded nice.
Last up, the charred lamb ribs ($16) are a thing of beauty … And tastiness. Plated on a vibrant orange romesco, the five small ribs are tender, fatty, and delicious. Made with a coriander-rich rub, the smoky meat is well-balanced by the nutty red pepper sauce. Lamb at a restaurant called Chubby Fish? You betcha.
As a bit of a public service announcement, if you’re claustrophobic or over six feet tall, stay the hell out of the bathroom to the left. Decorated with a lobster in a shadowbox, the blue room has a low, sharply slanted ceiling that’s particularly notable if you’re washing your hands.
Although the space can get loud and crowded, and the price point seems a tad high for the counter ordering system and some of the portion sizes, Chubby Fish is still a lot like an Apple store: Airy and welcoming with a product people clearly want. Although there are a few shortcomings, they get an awful lot right.