Just why do the folks at Pescabar set a pair of metal chopsticks on each table?
Yes, raw fish—I get it. The kitchen lauds its presentation of crudo, Italy's version of marinated sashimi. But show me the South or Central American restaurant where diners scoop ceviche with chopsticks. For that matter, show me a spot on the Mediterranean coast that offers guests anything other than a knife and fork to attend plates of the stuff. Somehow it seems as if Alberto Lombardi or one of his management team decided the trend-happy denizens of Uptown would be confused by sashimi presented without Asian utensils.
He and his staff failed to account, however, for the local need to scarper with a souvenir. My waiter one evening claimed that 300 or so sets of chopsticks have walked out since the place opened. "Sometimes I hear them clanking when people leave," he added.
They are pretty nice: polished and weighty, the kind of thing you find at upscale Korean restaurants. But if Italians made chopsticks they would probably sport designer labels and cleaning instructions—leaving snootier guests to cast aspersions on places carrying last year's Cavalli or to deride suburban types who wash their off-the-rack pieces in regular dish detergent.
Not surprisingly, Pescabar's rendition of crudo proves rather, um, stylish. The kitchen separates slices of kampachi with pickled papaya and drizzles cilantro oil over the exceedingly demure flesh before topping each cut with a dollop of lime-green roe. Some might argue this suddenly popular blank slate of a fish needs a kick. Against the tangy flush of vinegar and tropical fruit, however, it becomes a mere texture. Tuna is likewise almost lost to a lump of burata, tomato confit and other distinct ingredients. Seared tenderloin features a composed, magenta center and earthy seasoning—a nice combination of silken texture and hearty flavor, unless brushing through the colorful but deadly swath of Japanese condiments. Piercing mustard and togarashi, a chili-infused sauce, simply out-muscles the beef.
It's all very nice to look at and feels comfortable on the palate. On the other hand, the kitchen's emphasis on modern Italian couture distracts from the crudo itself—which may explain why restaurant staff show undue concern for the fourth item on my sampler tray, a few pale slivers of branzino carpaccio.
Our waiter, the manager and a maitre d' all stopped by for some reassurance:
"How is that branzino?"
"Isn't it your favorite?"
And the most revealing comment, after I nodded in response to the final inquiry: "Simple is best."
In flavor, this particular selection approaches the balance of acids (in this case lemon juice), fat (olive oil) and salt of old-school crudo. So why not just come out and say it? The fancy stuff falls short by comparison.
Nothing against modern Italian, mind you. I actually prefer the fresh, updated presentations. Sometimes, however, it pays to stay the course—not often, but sometimes. Pescabar's kitchen occasionally returns to the classics. A beautifully rendered, creamy béchamel spills from their "homemade" lasagna. Yes, they specify homemade on the menu, which to me suggests that busboys pick up the rest at one of Lombardi's other establishments or perhaps drop by Costco on their way to work. Indeed, their foccacia resembles commercial product sprinkled with something from a tube labeled "Kraft" and rushed through a toaster oven. But there's an essential cushiness to the lasagna. Not the kind of heavy, boldly seasoned casserole you find where folks love America, this softer presentation is lulled by béchamel, overcooked pasta and a very gentle veal Bolognese. It's dull and luxurious, like an elderly matron's living room.
Burata forms the cornerstone of their caprese, the porcelain white variation on mozzarella promising a memorable salad. Instead of oozing rich, milky liquor, however, I endured on one visit a lump of rather distraught cheese fattened with olive oil, the creamy yogurt character tainted, the greens flat and tomatoes revealing seasonal doldrums.
When the kitchen strays from their Italian theme, results can be interesting. For my second visit I settled on oysters Rockefeller, an American classic, followed by that oft-maligned favorite of the British pub crowd. Yep, fish and chips, a necessity after a night in which I inexplicably decided wine and tequila washed down by the last two beers in my fridge made perfect sense. The chips are remarkable: cut from sweet potato, bursting with a sugary, earthen taste and fried to that wonderful point where the center gushes from a crunchy shell. The fish turns out firm and flaky. But the thing I needed most—a rich and brittle crust—instead resembled faded suede leather, tanned, pliable and rather unpleasant. Soggy spinach drips over the oyster shells in their Rockefeller presentation, inadvertently picking up random crystals of rock salt which explode on the tongue. Not such a bad thing if you happened to be suffering from wine-tequila-beer aftershock, although the intense salinity tends to obliterate everything in its path.
The sloppy starter, overloaded by greens and dominated by a surprisingly complex sweet and piquant Mornay-like sauce, seems more like oysters a la Florentine than Rockefeller. Maybe that's why many people prefer the basic charm of fresh oysters, shucked and plated on the half shell. On two of my visits, the restaurant featured specimens from Salvation Cove off Canada's Prince Edward Island. Small in size, they present a rush of seawater followed by a quick, clean finish—simple yet exciting. Only the application of horseradish, cocktail sauce or the poorly executed mignonette provided with each order could dampen the experience. Crabcakes revel in naturally sweet flavor, lightly caramelized on the edges and held aloft by skillfully muted seasoning. The mango chutney served alongside picks up on all this, adding a subtle flicker of heat. Lobster bisque reeks of shell residue, striking the palate instantly and hard. But there's nothing much behind this first punch.
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So there it is: chopsticks, fish and chips, oysters Rockefeller and—on a Saturday evening—two big screens blaring college football. My table was split over the issue of semi-upscale restaurants doubling as sports bars. Clearly Pescabar strives to provide something for just about everyone. Lombardi's restaurants have a strange habit of searching, bouncing around between quite good and rather disappointing until settling on reliable, a quality defined by their customer base more than any other factor. Does anyone really care if they sacrifice little incidentals, such as ambience or theme, along the way?
They've etched the word "Italian" into windows and blather about crudo. But perhaps it's really just another fusion restaurant. Consider, for example, an entrée of roasted Scottish salmon sitting in Sicilian agrodolce studded with lentils. Impressive to look at, the pale pink meat surrounded by wine-dark sauce, it also deftly manipulates bold and delicate flavors. Rippled with streaks of fat, the fish almost melts on the tongue, falling into the paper-crisp skin. Flakes of sea salt well up in support—a masterpiece of cooking. Meanwhile the musty, earthy character of al dente lentils works to soften the piercing acidity of vinegar, sugar and red wine.
Only charred endive tossed on top of the salmon seems an afterthought, or maybe a reminder that Pescabar doesn't know quite where to stop, where to establish its boundaries. So, what the hell—go ahead and dig in with the chopsticks. There's nothing sacrosanct around here.
3699 McKinney Ave., 214-522-3888. Open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. $$-$$$