442 King St. Downtown
Serving lunch and dinner, closed Sun.
If you haven’t been to Fish in a while, prepare to be bewildered on your next visit. It’s undergone quite a transformation. The quaint little courtyard that used to serve as an entrance has been gated off for al fresco dining, and you now enter through the front door. If you go for lunch, you’ll have no server. Instead, you’ll order at the counter from a minimalist menu that requires you to pencil in your choices, which are decidedly Asian. Disassociated groups of diners gather to hear the chef behind the bar explain the protocol, which feels a bit like a sushi bar, with wraps rather than rolls.
They call them “le moo shu” because the offerings are a French-Asian hodgepodge: rice-paper wraps constructed from your choice of “protein,” “sauce,” and “side” — and they are good. A seared tuna filling slathered with a cilantro yuzu mayonnaise (tagged “medium” for heat) proves to be a good combination, if a bit steep at $11 (although a new lunch deal gets you a drink, moo shu wrap, and side for $10). The accompanying “sesame noodle salade” was a limp brick, overcooked, mushy, and bland.
Considerably more flash sparkles at dinner. The dinner menu is terse; the offerings almost barked from the dinner sheet: “pork chop. 24 (grilled, north carolina)” — not even states of origin receive a capital letter. The “automne” menu spans dim sum, assiettes de fromage, petite plate, and blunt descriptions of primary fare: soup, salad, side plate, large plate.
The small plates arrive in dazzling fashion with color and architectural flair in the presentation. Dim sum selections are attractively plated ($6). The rice lollipops are deep-fried balls, which need to come with the obligatory stick, that are slid into sake aioli. Crab wontons with plum sauce retain a crunchy exterior despite the warm filling. Tender dumplings are stuffed with pork and swathed in a sweet and sour soy sauce. The cheese plates offer a nice touch with the well-presented selection of wines, but could show better quality for $8.
You could get a glass of wine, a few small plates, perhaps a bowl of spicy shrimp soup ($6), and call it a night, but most everyone comes for the fish offerings. They still serve the “naked fish” (market price), but the kitchen falters with preparation. Sometimes overcooked and dry, sometimes perfectly cooked with an awful accompaniment, our experiences portend a need for adjustment on the kitchen line. The entrées are colorful, jovial, deliciously over the top, but then blow it at the last moment with textures that are too thick, too chewy, too goopy. I want my order to come out with finesse, delicacy, precision. The aesthetics of the place demand as much.
A moist, flavorful triggerfish ($21) spritzed with an alluring basil oil and adorned with a shock of fried leeks hid an unappealing nest of pad Thai noodles, thick and chewy, but dripping with a thick, gummy sauce. A “naked” preparation revealed a much too aggressive sear, a large chunk of fish rendered flavorless and pedestrian by volcanic heat, leaving the interior a swab of cotton, the outside a chewy shell of coagulated protein. The lemon Thai basil gnocchi ($4) were dry blobs, greasy, fried, like drops of paste.
For now, I’m sticking with the fried sardines ($8). They’re $2.67 each, but battered and deep fried, and only one end is stuck in the colorful, thick sauce.
On the outside, Fish looks to be freshly updated, with a trendy style, great presentation, and a competent staff. The service shines, and for a small plate and a glass of wine, it’s a viable option. But there’s great Asian just down the street, stellar wine across the way, and no dearth of trendy offerings on the block. In a dicey economy, Fish has an upstream swim ahead. Perhaps some sushi would make things interesting, or a true naked offering, just steamed with Asian greens and a simple soy dressing on the side. Maybe in a place named Fish, with a nice selection of champagnes, one could get a raw oyster or a tender ceviche with hot Thai chilies and giant Peruvian corn to go with that nice Riesling by the glass.