Review: The Fish
The Fish can be summed up in two words: sex and death. Not dead fish and bootylicious servers, but fish of death and high-backed banquettes done up in bordello-red suede with square portholes to draw out the sweaty voyeur in all of us.
The Fish was founded in Houston. Its original name was double entendre loaded for bear: Blowfish. Blowfish is another word for pufferfish; other names are bubblefish, swellfish, balloonfish and toadies. In Japan these fish are known as fugu, a prized delicacy that is prepared as an exotic strain of sashimi called fugusashi. Licensed chefs must prepare fugusashi because the liver, ovaries and skin harbor deadly toxins and must be removed and discarded with great care. Each year a number of people in Japan fall dead from eating improperly prepared fugu. Because the curled sheer shavings of fugu are often bland and tasteless, some chefs prepare it with minute amounts of poison to tingle and numb the tongue and lips.
The Fish doesn't serve fugusashi, but blowfish images run rampant throughout. Behind the sushi bar, spiny blowfish cast in deep pink swim between stalks of finger coral also cast in pink on a backdrop with black lacquer sheen.
Yet the most dangerous thing at The Fish isn't the fish. It's the service. It's slow and costly. Drinks get lost. Orders are mistranslated, such as those on the tastings menu, a roster of fresh delicacies offered as pieces of sushi ($5) or as full-blown sashimi compositions ($25). We asked for sushi. We got the full-blown.
Yet full-blown can be stunning. Mirugai, thin slices of giant clam, is assembled in a gaping clamshell with thick shavings of pickled ginger and ruffles of Asian mint, all resting in a bowl of crushed ice. A huge bamboo leaf juts from behind the clam jaw hinge like some primitive spearhead plunged in surf sand. Curled lip-like pieces of clam—slightly cool and sticky to the touch, faintly resilient against teeth, barely brushing the nose with its marine scent—look like vulva vignettes. Its flavor is near bland, not unlike folds of fugusashi; the delicate flavor is harassed by the preponderance of aggressively shaved ginger. Let the bowl of tangy ponzu sauce charge this lack of vigor if it's too faint to arouse your taste buds.
Japanese mackerel sashimi is even more dawning wonder. A platter stretches with irregularly placed curls of flesh, flashes of silver strobing from skin. Slightly warm, the curls rest in tiny puddles of onion oil. A salad of onion and grated ginger tacks down one end. A fish skeleton, head and tail intact on a comb of spine and sharp ribs, curls at the other, watching its flesh being pinched away by chopsticks.
Almost nothing from The Fish's sushi bar is as remotely gripping as these things. Flying fish roe—fluffy yellow BBs wrapped in nori—is adequate. Tuna, hamachi, octopus and uni hold their own. A gimmicky thing called the Bubba Gump roll has shrimp that go crunch.
Yet The Fish isn't deadly serious about sushi anyway. No hot towels are dispensed as you are seated. Servers seem unsure of what the stuff is. I order two pieces of uni sushi, stressing that we didn't want sashimi. Two orders of uni roll are brought to the table instead.
Enter the sex. In addition to garish reds, the restaurant is dressed in sultry blacks—napkins, trim, wood blinds, etc. Men wear tight-fitted black shirts tucked in crisp slacks or designer jeans, hair slicked back or mussed into random curls. Women wear spike-heeled boots or stilettos and dresses and tops with plunging V necklines to keep the cleavage from asphyxiating. Their hair is pulled tight and tied or stylishly draped. Martinis in chick-drink pastels are endlessly deployed. This is polished sex appeal—no torn jeans or slept-in shirttails.
Duran Duran and The Pretenders play at lunch, which offers a menu composed of tight little meal packets—steamed rice, miso soup or salad and tempura vegetables framing its protein focal points such as the chicken teriyaki, which is dry and cool with a stiff, unctuous glaze.
Beef rolls, sheets of dry, coarse rib eye swaddling wedges of avocado, are like eating green foam wrapped in sackcloth. Sautéed scallops, crowned with rings of jalapeño, carry no hints of caramelizing from intense heat. In the mouth they jiggle and writhe like uncooked fat. They desperately beg to be left alone. We complied. Best of lunch is the miso silver cod, great flecks of fish that flake off into buttery fins raced with miso sake.
The Fish has other things to distract. There's rack of lamb with roasted beets, bone-in rib eye with crab and avocado, teriyaki-less free-range chicken in ginger sake sauce. There are five-spice pork loin, pan-seared scallops and shrimp, and the "hot rock," a pre-heated round smooth stone for self-sizzling and searing your own bloodied-red gossamer sheets of "American Kobe" beef. Why haven't hot rocks become the new asbestos? It isn't too hard to imagine litigation mills running on lawsuits arising from burned elbows and blistered forearms from hot rocks.
Instead of litigation we get Muscovy duck, a beautiful display of fanned almond crepes cut into shark's teeth, strips of grenadine-poached pear as red as taillights and slices of duck breast arranged to accentuate the layered symmetry. It is sordid. The crepe shingles are hard, cold and stale. The pears can't help but remind you of past fruitcakes rejuvenated with douses of brandy to keep them relevant for another year. The duck...well, the duck is gray and hard and chewy as beef jerky.
Bass sarabachi is much better. Pan-roasted striped bass in a sake-soy reduction is moist and hearty, layered with strips of fennel and rice cake boosted by pungent sake-soy.
The Fish has a wine room too, a futuristic cubicle with glass wine cabinets you'd bet were bulletproof. This temperature-controlled transparency starts from just above the waist and stretches all the way to the ceiling. It's furnished with a long table and red leather chairs. "You can reserve it if you want," says a manager.
Maybe what the Fish needs is a good dose of fugu, prepared with just enough poison to tingle the tongue and lips. That would be some kiss of death, just the kind that could awaken this fish.
636 McKinney Ave. in West Village, 214-522-0071. Open 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday, 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 5 p.m.-midnight Thursday and Friday, noon-midnight Saturday, 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Sunday. $$$
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