Catch and release

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.

Fish in Dallas is, of course, first a matter of availability. It's not so much a question of how well you cook it as whether you can get groceries that are good enough to cook. In these days of flash-freezing, it's not as difficult as it once was--even shoreline restaurants serve some frozen fish which can taste fresher than its never-frozen counterpart, depending on how long the boat's been out. Svalesen has been dealing with Dallas fish vendors for years, and his printed menu is based on dependables: swordfish, salmon, tuna, shrimp, and shellfish. Rainbow trout and sole are as daring as he gets, and sometimes you lose on those--the trout, anyway, has been disappointingly soft and flavorless. Specials might feature more exotic swimmers, but none were offered the night we dined at Fish, possibly because of a service oversight.

There's simply no excuse for some things, and one of those things is bad bread in a restaurant. For many years in Dallas, this was a forgivable sin--few kitchens are equipped to bake their own bread. Now there's no reason why they should be, because Dallas' bakeries are as good as any in the country. Great Chinese food we don't have, great Italian food eludes us, but great bread we can get, so the doughy, underbaked slices we were served at Fish were inexcusable. Ill-informed or undertrained waitstaff is also inexcusable, and our well-meaning waitress didn't seem to understand the food she was serving and couldn't be found when we wanted to ask her something anyway. (On the other hand, Luis, the busboy, was a real pro, moving smoothly and almost intuitively to provide us with whatever we needed.)

When a companion asked about the clams casino, our waitress interrupted to explain to us what a clam is ("like an oyster, only the shell is rounder"). We passed on the clams and ordered calamari, a supposedly specially prepared version of the usual fry--the waitress told us it was soaked in milk for three days so it was unusually tender. We couldn't tell that the gold-crusted twirls and circles were any tenderer than regular rubber bands, but we could tell that the oil had not been hot enough to fry in because the calamari was so greasy. It was served with two sauces, which is almost customary now--a nice marinara and a chunky tartar sauce. Our waitress was so enthusiastic about the pan-fried Dungeness crabcakes that we ordered those, too, although it would be hard to thrill me with a crabcake anymore. These certainly weren't the exception, thick, dense, almost wet patties of crab flakes and crumbs with a mushy, mayonnaisey center, but they were inventively served with wonderful crisp-tender green beans in a pool of tomato coulis and coriander (you probably call it cilantro) oil. I guess I can still be thrilled by a green bean--I certainly could have skipped the cakes and eaten more beans. A salad of tomatoes and Dallas mozzarella was good, drizzled with basil-flavored oil, but the Greek salad, a confused, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink toss of tomatoes, peperoncini, peppers, onions, cucumbers, lettuce, olives, and creamy feta was unpleasantly over-dressed.

The entree of yellowfin tuna was served raw in the middle, and our waitress had taken great pains to make sure I understood this would be the case. Each seared ruby medallion was thickly crusted in cracked black pepper, and the contrast of crunchy spice with the cool red flesh was good. It was an enormous portion, sized for steak appetites, so the mashed potatoes sounded like a reasonable side dish. My only beef was that they were billed as lobster mashed potatoes (a version we're seeing on many menus now that all these seafood restaurants have leftover lobster bisque to use up), and there was not a tint or a whiff of lobster in this twirly potato tower extruded into the middle of my plate. If there was lobster in those potatoes, it speaks very poorly for the flavor of the crustacean. In fact, these weren't even good plain mashed potatoes--they were grainy and flavorless, the kind of mashed potato that encourages people to make instant mashed potatoes because there's no apparent difference. Still, the syrupy red wine demi-glace, subbing for gravy, gave the spuds some taste, and the sweetness of the sauce was the perfect foil for the heavy fish and pepper. This was a well-conceived dish, focused on the fish, with just enough invention to make it interesting, and the kind of thing I expected from Fish and Chris Svalesen.

Fish does serve fowl, and beef too. We tried the tenderloin medallions, just out of curiosity, because the presentation was intriguing. The rounds of beef were topped with littler rounds of foie gras and garnished with tempura-fried figs. When you had composed a bite with all three elements, and some of the port wine glaze, you had a mouthful worth working for, although a kitchen that stretches its options from a dish this chi-chi to one as basic as New England steamed dinner is probably in for some problems.

Fish, 302 S. Houston St., (214) 747-FISH. Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-2 p.m., for dinner Monday-Thursday 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m. Open Sunday 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Late menu 10 p.m.-2 a.m. daily.

Pan-Fried Dungeness Crab Cake $7.50
Greek Salad $5.50
House Caesar with Crisp Parmesan Wafers $6.00
House Smoked Seafood Plate $8.00
Pepper-Crusted Yellowfin Tuna Served Rare $17.00


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