Catch and release

Fish hits some rough seas in satisfying Dallas' craving for quality seafood

Someone has to say it, and it might as well be me: Something fishy is going on.

OK, when everyone from Stephan Pyles to Gene Street is opening a seafood restaurant, you've landed a whale-sized trend, and you can count on swallowing as many fish metaphors and salty cliches as there are fish in the sea from food writers up to their gills in seafood menus. Dallas has been deluged with new seafood restaurants in recent months--Nicholini's, Lombardi Mare, and Picardys are some examples--and every few days I hear about a new one. Street's British-based seafood palace will open on McKinney in the near future, and Pyles and partner Michael Cox's place, a longtime dream, is edging close to overbooked reality, too. I guess someone has finally caught on that Dallas, although landlocked, loves fish--and I don't mean just gullible investors.

Where to eat seafood is one of the questions I'm asked most often, and until recently, there have only been a few obvious answers. You couldn't have a more obvious answer than a restaurant called bluntly "Fish," but according to my visits, it's an answer I'd have to give with reservations.

You'll need them, by the way. Reservations, that is. Fish has already established itself as a place to go, and if you wait too long to make plans for a weekend night, you'll only be able to land a very early or very late dinner time. That could be viewed as an added attraction, because Fish is still serving its late night menu long after most nice restaurants have gone to bed. It's a chic option for those of you who experience late nights vertically. For some of us, the limited options just mean going downtown again too long after we've already left once.

Fish is located in the Paramount, a recently re-gentrified little hotel at the west end, but not in the West End, of downtown, and the kitchen is headed by co-owner Chris Svalesen, a chef with impeccable credentials. Dallas first met Svalesen when he was chef-owner of Scott's, an excellent but unremembered seafood restaurant in the space now occupied by Anzu. After Scott's, Svalesen worked at Ristorante Savino, Pinot's, and Accolades, proud additions to any resume. Then Svalesen was chef at Yellow, lending that chic little place a briny tinge while he was in charge, because seafood has always been his metier. Since Victor Gielisse hung up his toque, no one has cooked fish for Dallas like Chris.

So I expected nothing but excellence from Chris' latest home, this restaurant called bluntly "Fish" with the subtitle pun "an upscale seafood restaurant." I like the place: The hotel is on a corner, so big windows line the dining room on two sides. It's furnished quietly, with white-clad tables and comfortable chairs. Though there are a few questionable touches, like the whitepaper over the white tablecloths, a fishmonger look out of place in this kind of setting, mostly, the atmosphere is genteel without pretension--it's a nice room, decorated to appear un-decorated. At night, the cute, sassy hostess joked that she'd saved us a "nice table right by the kitchen" and led us to a window-side seat with a beautiful view of Reunion's electronic fireworks, a pleasant setting for a less than sparkling evening.

Lunch at Fish was a civilized experience, just what you'd want a mid-week lunch to be--relaxing, encouraging of conversation, the kind of lunch you could linger over, yet return to work from without impairment. A gentle glass of cold white wine from a list of reasonably priced choices went well with the plate of house-smoked seafood: The pile of shriveled oysters shuddering without shells on the chilled plate, a single alpha shrimp curled in the center with a bunch of greens, a small piece of pink salmon, and a piece of flaky white trout, all just barely infused with smoke enough to enhance their flavor. A subtlety like this is especially welcome when so often from today's smoke-enthused kitchens you are served food so smoky it gives the impression of having expired from the fumes. And Fish thoughtfully served the scoop of horseradish cream on the side, so you could spice the fish as you wished.

Salad was equally light-handed and charming. A bouquet of whole Boston lettuce leaves flowered out of a tomato wedge with a tiny round of creamy goat cheese. Seafood risotto had been unmolded into a pyramid shape, a cafeteria presentation that didn't diminish its goodness. The rice was properly creamy, but not gluey, and surrounded by shrimp and scallops. I would have preferred to see the seafood in the rice--as it was, you felt the two had hardly been introduced, had only just met on your plate. But the shrimp was firm and sweet, and given that there seem to be only two acceptable adjectives for sea scallops--rubbery or silken--I'd say these were silken. White and dark chocolate bread pudding, though, was a totally unacceptable square of cement-like density, so bad that the kitchen should never have served it. Desserts were a problem at Fish--the apple tart at dinner, which took a touted twenty minutes to prepare to order, was served tepid (was the cooling-down time included in that twenty minutes?), and the raspberry strudel's pastry was sodden from the jammy filling.

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