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Sink or swim

Chef George Grieser tweaked Fish's menu, but left much of it intact.
Tracy Powell

Fish has always been a funny fin. It could dazzle you with its scaled wonders, then turn around and disappoint you with a few beached blunders. But it would always hook you with a hefty check for the trouble.

Launched in 1996 by businessman Steven Upright and chef Chris Svalesen, whose kitchen stints included Yellow, his own Scott's Seafood House, and Ristorante Savino, Fish opened to near instantaneous accolades. All this fawning was vindication for Upright, who was almost ridiculed for trying to plop an upscale seafood restaurant downtown in the Paramount Hotel, which can't seem to decide whether it wants to renovate or go to seed.

But Upright's move proved prescient, especially now that little swells of urban aspirants are trickling to the Dallas core and the new arena is set to rise over the cityscape nearby. Upright's moves are shrewd for other reasons. Outfitting the space, with its staid, minimalist decor, was said to have cost in the low five figures. That compares with the upper six or even seven figures that are almost standard these days for places slinging upscale hash. "I knew I wasn't going to put in no $50,000 chandelier," Upright says. "You can't eat a chandelier. But people will drive a long way for good food."

If they know the food is good, that is. And this is where Upright casts a wide net. A tireless promoter who has been known to turn a wrong number to his cell phone into dinner reservations at Fish, Upright relentlessly drums Dallas' downtown hotels, hobnobbing with concierges and bartenders, urging them to steer hotel guests to his fishmonger stall. "Once a week I take them some supper, God bless 'em," drawls Upright. "They're the best neighbors in the world."

Upright's shoestring Fish budget and the restaurant's steep menu prices coupled with the local and national press flattery have been causes for salivation among the city's restaurant pros. Now Upright is poised to scatter a little roe. He's currently sniffing for funds in hopes of delivering Fish over the next four years to North Dallas, Fort Worth, and North Carolina. North Carolina? Yeah. Upright says there are few restaurants of Fish's caliber in his home state and the demand is pent-up. "Carolina is just tearin' it up, man," says Upright. "All those stock-car people. It's just so huge."

But this isn't the only progression in Fish's evolution. Last summer, Svalesen cut bait and is busy burrowing in the Bank One building in hopes of launching a new downtown seafood restaurant. Fish got a new head in the form of George Grieser, onetime executive chef of the now defunct Gershwin's Bar & Grill before he took a short detour to Jakes American on the shores of Lake Austin. Jakes went belly-up just after Grieser signed on at Fish.

With a battle-hardened résumé, Grieser is perhaps as shrewd a selection for Fish as was the choice to inhabit the ground floor of the battle-hardened Paramount. Grieser, who once fiddled with computer programming at the University of North Texas, graduated from Vermont's New England Culinary Institute in the early '90s. He also survived the brutal culinary boot camp that is New York City's restaurant scene -- Aquavit, Gotham Bar & Grill, Il Madri -- where abuse and humiliation can be an integral part of the apprenticeship process. Grieser recalls an instance in which a miffed Swiss chef signaled his displeasure with a sauce by splashing it over the arm of a colleague. His fellow chef was scalded.

"A man's got to know his limitations," says Grieser, recalling a line from a Clint Eastwood movie. "And a restaurant's got to know its limitations."

Such experiences seem to have inspired rigor as well as intense circumspection in Grieser. Which is why, when he came to Fish, Grieser wasn't eager to fix what wasn't broken, at least not without a lot of analysis to figure out the limitations. So far, he's added only a few items here and there, though he plans to overhaul the lunch menu. One of his introductions is pan-seared foie gras ($14.95) with red currants in a port wine demi-glace. It's a laudable stab, though in the end it misses: The meat was a bit too mushy to elevate it above the swamps, plus the sauce seemed one-dimensional, flush with bright fruit flavor and a pronounced acid layer but lacking savoriness to amplify and broaden the richness. A fanning of thinly sliced apples along the top of the plate was a bit dry.

Other Svalesen recipes Grieser simply tweaked, but the pan-fried crab cakes ($8.95) come off only modestly successful in the wake of revisions. The cakes were served cold, with a flaccid pan-fried coat over a core of mush. Plus, they suffered from a lack of assertive seasoning -- which isn't to say the brilliantly fresh sprout salad splattered with a refreshingly tasty tomato coulis under the cake didn't work prickled wonders on the tongue. It just wasn't enough to spark those crab patties.

One of the first things Grieser set out to do at Fish was pull the prices down a bit. He says he was stunned by Fish's wallet bite, especially the specials, which consistently hovered in the $30-$40 range. Plus, the entrées were often little more than a well-prepared blob of formerly finned protein seemingly served with little concern for visual presentation and without sides. Everything, from potatoes to asparagus, was a la carte. "You gotta give people value," Grieser says. "Dallas is way too competitive."

So one of the first dishes Grieser set out to modify with value-consciousness was pan-roasted grouper ($21.95). Previously just a piece of fish in a modest sauce for 21 bucks, Grieser's version adds an apple-smoked bacon balsamic sauce and creamy mashed potatoes with asparagus tips. The results are startling. The fish is sweet and firm, and the deliciously rich sauce deftly complemented the flesh without embezzling its natural flavors.

Prince Edward Island steamed mussels ($6.95), one of Svalesen's creations left virtually untouched, is perhaps the best deal on the menu. A generous heap of tiny, firm mussels sweating briny sweetness are soaked in a rich, white-wine pesto puddle with bits of tomato and onion, though the garlic was perhaps too underplayed.

But the blunders can be doozies. The most tragic dish on the menu is the seared fillet of Chilean sea bass with shrimp ($22.95), tragic because the piece of sweet, well-seasoned sea bass was perfectly seared and the singed shrimp basking around the edge of the plate were profoundly tasty with succulently sweet briny flavors. But its flaws quickly overwhelmed the successes, even before the plate was set down at the place setting. It had a sharp, acrid fume. The aroma presumably emanated from a red wine-vinegar sauce with kalamata olives and pepperoncini (the menu also listed capers, but thankfully, none could be found). But the effect was more industrial than culinary, like the stinging burn of photochemical stop bath. The acid puddle rendered the little center heap of basmati rice inedible.

Surprisingly, one of the most successful dishes at Fish doesn't even swim, at least not well. To complement the seafood menu and to help solidify this downtown restaurant's lock on the convention business, Grieser urged Upright to let him broaden the menu's meat offerings. This is shrewd. Modern humans mostly relate more to terrestrial beings than to water organisms. I mean, you can find a bullhead, a cowfish, a hogfish, a pigfish, and even a horse mackerel, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a cod chicken, even on the free range. Fish's menu has filet mignon, a double-cut pork chop, and a 16-ounce marinated rib eye ($26.95). Slathered in a deftly understated cognac-peppercorn sauce, the steak, a prime cut, was rich, tender, and juicy. And the marinade, a mixture of garlic, olive oil, shallots, and peppercorns, was only hinted at, letting the natural meat flavors come through. The red meat was chewy and done to a perfect medium-rare hue, and the Yukon gold potatoes nuzzled on the side were moist and good.

Another of Grieser's creations is a scanty portobello mushroom ($7.95) dish. Five strips of mushroom meat are spread over the plate, emanating like wheel spokes from a hub of well-dressed greens. Seasoned with rosemary, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar and roasted in the oven, the mushrooms were meaty, chewy, and richly flavored. Puréed roasted-pepper sauces dot the plate.

Because of a further analysis of limitations, Grieser declined to execute most of the desserts. He leaves that to Bill Hunter of Desserts by Design. The results can be astounding. Panna cotta ($6.50), a velvety custard served in a crisp yet chewy lace cookie cup ringed with plump, plush raspberries, was luscious. Dribbles of mango and strawberry sauce smeared the plate with color.

Yep, Fish still dazzles. And it still generates winces. But if Grieser can successfully vaporize the winces, there's no limit to how many people this Fish story will favorably impress -- even those stock-car-lovin' people in North Carolina.


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