As a rescue effort, Fishbowl isn't bad. In fact, this retro lounge fitted from the stuck-up bar affixed to the Stephan Pyles and Michael Cox's AquaKnox would be a swell place to nibble and sip even if it weren't next door to the hyper-upscale restaurant.
What Fishbowl proves is that Pyles/Cox and company (in this case, Carlson Restaurants Worldwide of TGI Friday's fame) aren't blinded by their own star power. They could see that their overhyped, overpriced ocean spray was getting anemic. But instead of hyperventilating and passing out, they stepped back and stitched together a patchwork of such thoughtful whimsy that it wouldn't be surprising if Fishbowl subsumed its neighbor and became "Fishtank."
Not that the retro-pan-Asian shtick doesn't wear a little thin. Fishbowl is a virtual gallery of hip Oriental money shots. Big red doors hang at the main entrance on Knox Street. Rice paper and silk lanterns dangle. Behind the sushi bar and off to the right is a portrait of the Dalai Lama. What's more hip these days than a self-satisfied Tibetan reference? Scrawled over the soffit above the bar are "Zen-like sayings" -- simplicity, prosperity, tradition, order, abundance, creativity, and moderation -- that "reemphasize the harmony" of the Fishbowl menu and ambience. One almost yearns for a little yin-yang play across the room, perhaps by posting the seven deadly sins above the smoking section.
Fishbowl's cocktails have names that a professional silicon-melon waggler on Northwest Highway might brandish -- Siamese Kitten, Singapore Sling, Blazing Bangkok Punch, Chocolate Monchichi Monkey. There's even a selection of Dr. Tung's infused sakes -- mango, papaya, mandarin -- which seem more invaded than imbued. My mango sake seemed to leave scraps of pulp on my lip.
But it all crackles with a furious spark, the kind that functions as a pheromone for dollars in the restaurant business. Which means the view is good, the interaction spicy. Slinky tank tops and hiked-up capri pants flow into heeled sandals redder than Fishbowl's massive Knox Street doors. Pairs of lips press together at the sushi bar, seemingly driven by the sonic dribble of Barry White and his Love Unlimited Orchestra leaking from the sound system.
You almost hate to buckle down and eat for fear of missing a crucial episode. But do it anyway, because most everything is good, though maybe not as good as the view. Taco (octopus $4) sashimi is smooth, tender, and briny. Maguro (tuna $4) is silky and rich. Even the silvery sardine sushi ($3) drenched the mouth with a mild, pleasant pungency. A rippled mound of wasabi big enough to choke Barry White accompanies the fish.
Appetizers and salads aren't bad either, though they pluck at the pocket book pretty hard. Mu shu pork tacos with Thai basil slaw ($7) were just two diminutive doughy folds strewn with delicious shreds of slightly sweet pork interspersed with a little onion. An equally dwarfish clump of Thai basil slaw doused with a brisk rice wine vinaigrette shared space with the wraps on the white, square plate.
Equally meager was the mound of Asian greens washed in pomegranate sake dressing ($7) arranged over a white triangular plate. Little clumps of pomegranate seeds clustered near the geometric points. Everything was freshly tasty save for little piles of mushy seeds. But seven bucks?
Perhaps the only thing on the menu that comes off like a bustling bargain is the sizzling whole catfish in sweet chile sauce ($10). Covered in a crisp sheath, the fish is tender, sweet, and moist. Clumps of crisp bok choy surrounded the colorful oval platter like aquatic weeds.
Ginger beef with wasabi mashed potatoes ($12) is slathered in a well-sparked brown sauce. But the chewy, sweet chunks of beef were a bit overcooked and somewhat hard and dry, though the smooth dab of spuds was delicious.
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Szechwan shrimp stir-fry with Chinese sausage, black beans, and bok choy ($12) was served on a carpet of chow mein noodles. Though the sweet shrimp were a little spongy, the crisp noodles soaked up the rich sauce, transforming them into soft and tender strands, as if they had been cooked. The whole pile was pocked with black beans and slices of sweet Chinese sausage. Bok choy bundles were scattered around the plate.
If there's anything legitimately tongue-in-cheek about Fishbowl, it isn't the retro accoutrements. It's the little odes to modernity. To the right of the sushi bar, within sight of the Dalai Lama, are two television monitors stacked one atop the other and embedded in a wall case. They play little Asian features like Shall We Dance, a delicious, English-subtitled Japanese flick about stiff company men learning ballroom dancing.
One of the more amusing options is a phone lounge, a kind of peaceful respite for people who can't refrain from fondling their cell phones -- even to eat. These compulsive phoners should heed the wise graffiti scrawled on Fishbowl's menu; little life pearls like "Rice in the bowl. Water in the bucket. Love in the heart." "One in the world, One with everything." "Eat when hungry. Sleep when tired."
Fishbowl when bored.