Go Fish Ocean Club: Time to Let Chef Tiffany Derry's Star Shine.
Having dined at Go Fish Ocean Club only on weeknights, I can't imagine the clamor that must quake the far north Dallas restaurant on weekends. Perhaps it's a function of the way the dual-level space is divided, but Go Fish can be frightfully loud. Every punch line uttered and touchdown broadcast on the bar television becomes a public occasion, with the room's strange acoustics resizing laughs and screams for sharing.
But the vast majority of shrieking and squealing at Go Fish is inspired by executive chef Tiffany Derry, a near-finalist on the latest season of Top Chef and top vote-getter in the "fan favorite" competition. Derry this December will reappear on Top Chef All Stars, cooking against seven seasons' worth of talented also-rans tripped up by one unfortunate seasoning, timing or freezing incident.
A good number of guests come to Go Fish looking for Derry, the calmest, happiest-seeming female contestant since Stephanie Izard to wear a Top Chef chef's coat. "Is Tiffany working tonight?" they ask their patient servers, who track Derry's comings and goings with atomic precision.
To Derry's credit, she doesn't secret herself in the kitchen, where staffers presumably aren't snapping cell-phone photos of her or asking her to dish about fellow contestants. She gamely makes the dining room rounds, thanking guests for visiting.
Derry may have picked up her knife skills in culinary school, but she learned something about hospitality at the International House of Pancakes, where she was the youngest person ever to serve as a manager.
"Y'all come back and see me!" Derry recently told a table of starstruck diners.
Derry's cooking teems with the same drawling exuberance: Her forte is flavor, not elegance. Derry's so well-versed in technique that she's taught aspiring culinarians at the Art Institute of Houston, but the best dishes in her repertoire pay homage to grease-stained recipe card boxes, not textbooks. There are a few gleeful menu items at Go Fish that, repacked in Pyrex, wouldn't be out of place at a tailgate party or a dinner on the ground.
A country streak can be a liability for a chef with dreams of reality show victory: In a blog post reviewing Derry's dismissal from Top Chef, head judge Tom Colicchio wrote her "concept just wasn't as nuanced and sophisticated" as the concepts presented by her competitors. Plainspoken deliciousness couldn't save Derry a seat on the plane to the finals in Singapore—but it's a lovely discovery at Go Fish.
There is a family reunion vibe that emanates from Derry's kitchen, and elements less compatible with it just don't work. That's not Derry's fault: The restaurant doesn't belong to her. Still, the juxtaposition of her style with the restaurant's self-consciously sleek décor is somewhat jarring. Go Fish opened in its current location just two years ago, but it looks like a vestige of the 1990s. The dimly lit room features slinky black, sharp-edged walls and tube lights suspended from the ceiling.
There are suspiciously corporate touches on the menu too. There's nothing really wrong with a spicy tuna roll, although I wish a restaurant as scrupulous about its ingredient sourcing as Go Fish—in a neat bit of painless pedagogy, the menu announces: "Derry will not serve Chilean Sea Bass or Blue Fin Tuna in support of NRDC and Sea Web's education effort to speed the recovery of this endangered species"—wouldn't use seaweed salad dyed emerald green, ginger dyed pink and wasabi dyed a pale shade of mint. The tuna is appropriately fresh, and the roll is perked up by a procession of high-performance pickled jalapeños, but the preparation's predictability and an overly generous drizzle of ponzu sauce disappointed.
Far better is the masterful fluke crudo, a gorgeous plate of ghostly fish shavings dashed with a harmonized chord of chili oil, white soy sauce and a stridently acidic yuzu juice, its citrus flavor amplified by slim slivers of tart, white grapefruit set atop each delicate slice of fish. Derry may veer toward simple, timeless cooking, but homey shouldn't be confused with klutzy: The beautiful, blindingly bright crudo showed a real command of refinement.
Another entry in the menu's "raw and barely raw" section wasn't quite as successful: A heap of Cabernet-colored octopus escabeche was overcooked, an error that sadly became a recurrent theme over two dinners at Go Fish. No doubt it's difficult for a chef to maintain control of a kitchen when she's constantly filming television shows and making public appearances, but a restaurant charging $30 for an entrée needs someone consistent on the grill—especially when the prep cooks are doing such an impressive job with soups, sauces and side dishes.
Still, correctly cooked octopus wouldn't have made the dish any more cohesive. The lightly oiled octopus was served with a mound of salty olive tapenade that made geographic sense but seemed like a castaway on the plate. Are diners supposed to scoop up the salad with a spoon? Drag the octopus through it? It's probably best used as a spread atop the nutty, full-grained house bread.
Warm appetizers are considerably folksier. There's a mustardy Caesar salad interlaid with fat white anchovies and gelatinous fried green tomatoes masquerading as croutons. And Go Fish fulfills its fish-shack duty with lobster bisque, a serviceable sherry-scented version of the classic that's neither too rich nor too heavy, although my serving was sullied by a faint tinge of burn, suggesting the soup had spent too long simmering at too high a temperature.
Go Fish's calamari is approachable, but unlikely to win over any eaters not already indoctrinated in squid's charms. The fried calamari nuggets—our server called them "center-cut"—look and taste too much like frozen fish sticks. Tossed with sautéed spinach and soaked in an overbearing sweet-and-sour sauce, the extravagantly portioned dish was oddly reminiscent of a mom-made school-night supper.
Fried red snapper seated atop a messy tomato stew of chorizo and spicy crawfish was no more subtle, but the cayenne-peppered concoction magically evoked the Gulf Coast. The snapper had a clean, crisp crust for which most chicken fryers would trade their grandmother's skillet, and the sprightly stew bespoke Cajun pride as eloquently as a Saints jersey.
I was equally fond of a poached Hawaiian escolar, a matzo-ball-looking hunk of fish flesh which might have outdone the snapper had it not been overcooked. Still, the escolar, bless its heart, did its best to transcend mistreatment, oozing a fabulous buttery flavor. The servers who steered me to the escolar made no mention of an accompanying succotash that turned out to be impeccable: The dish featured vivid corn niblets, shaggy morels and earthy asparagus, streaked with garlic and salted with prosciutto fat. It was a holdover from a spring menu that probably should have been shoved out with the season, but it was so perfect and unpretentious that I couldn't fault the kitchen for keeping it.
The succotash bore all the hallmarks of Derry's approach to cooking. I look forward to the day when a restaurant does too.
Go Fish Ocean Club 5301 Alpha Road, Suite 24, 972-980-1919, gofishoceanclub.com. Open 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday, 4-9 p.m. Monday-Wednesday and 4-10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Closed Sunday. $$$
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