In Dallas, seafood is the black sheep, a gangly, stinky stepchild that doesn't take to wood-fired grates or high-degree broilers with the same gusto as a corn-fed steer. It's a placeholder on steakhouse menus, a light alternative for those who don't relish beefy bloodlust or the burden a fine steakhouse meal often exerts during digestion. Sure, seafood inhabits assorted lobster houses and oyster bars and Cajun rooms with preparations that mostly stick to strict tried-and-true protocol. Sure, it is the stock in trade of sushi restaurants where, no matter how good it is when it's done well, seafood is both predictable and monotonous: mostly raw, riced, soy sauced and kick-boxed with wasabi.
Dallas doesn't bloom with a robust diversity of fresh sea species prepared with a keen focus on glorifying the intrinsic flavors locked within. Seafood palettes like this are mostly concentrated in The Oceanaire Seafood Room, with its dynamic, rapidly shifting fish cast on a chalkboard, its comings and goings almost as entertaining to observe as the fish are to taste.
This is why Dallas Fish Market, sibling to Go Fish and Fish Express restaurants founded by entrepreneur Mike Hoque, is poised to become the city's seafood pinnacle if it can keep its senses tuned and its imagination sharp. Dallas Fish Market goads fresh fish in provocative ways, respecting inherent flavors even as it dabbles in heresy. To understand these expressions, you must study the Market's interior geometry. You must look at its color. You must consider its use of space. Then you must wreck everything until it conforms to what you've studied and looked at and considered. For this is how the kitchen draws inspiration.
Dallas Fish Market
Salmon sushi $16
Beef tataki $15
Lobster mac and cheese $11
Grass-fed rib eye $28
Soft-shell crab $30
Loup de mer $27
Skate wing $24
Panna cotta $8
At first blush, Dallas Fish Market is a hideous cliché, an expensive trap of edgy swankiness with thumping club music undulating in the harsh chilliness of its bleached whites trimmed in polished metals and glass, some of the latter frosted. It's more surgery theater or microchip clean room than dining setting. There is a kitchen behind glass. The chairs in the sushi bar are white Lucite. Strange wall treatments composed of thin, uneven wood strips sprayed in silver paint and mounted to the wall resemble roll-up garage doors. It's not so much sterile bank or an office as it is a futuristic Brave New World breeding pen.
There is a wine room, or would be if there was wine in it. "It's the world's largest Lite Brite," a server says, conjuring that '60s Hasbro toy where pictures and patterns were created by placing translucent plastic pegs into a backlit black grid. The wine room has a near floor-to-ceiling slotted rack filled with frosted clear glass bottles, their necks pushed into the slots, their dimpled bottoms angled slightly upward. Behind the rack is an array of halogen lights, which can conceivably be programmed to create patterns and color shifts, that illuminates the bottles. It's another example of the growing trend of turning wine programs into light shows, or in this case, a light show that suggests a wine program.
"I took a lot of my inspiration from this restaurant, the way it looks," says executive chef Randy Morgan. "I really wanted the food to meld with the décor of the restaurant...You get a clean feeling when you walk in here."
Morgan has wrestled and nurtured fish for years as a seafood butcher in Seattle, as a sous chef at Mars 2112 and the newly opened Russian Tea Room in New York, as chef at Fish Club in Seattle's Waterfront Marriott Hotel and as a training chef for The Oceanaire in Dallas.
But perhaps his most pertinent post was that of executive chef of the Microsoft Executive Briefing Center in Redmond, Washington, where he fed Fortune 500 executives, catered celebrity parties and prepared menus for dignitaries such as Thai royalty and the prime minister of Indonesia. Morgan was driven to unravel the mysteries of Indian and Saudi Arabian cookery among other cuisines. That undoubtedly broadened his awareness and shifted his thinking.
Morgan takes traditional sushi and breaks it down into its essential components, wrecking and reforging them into tight geometric shapes and loose forms. But instead of reassembling, Morgan sets up the components as stand-alone elements in space, creating tension that can only be relieved with unification. Sushi rice is formed into clean squares topped with a nest of bright green seaweed and sesame seeds on one end of the plate. Tataki, strips of flash-seared beef, a thin reed of gray framing the damp rouge cast, is arranged at the other end in a tightly choreographed row, stretching the space between components. Tasmanian salmon is the same, except that thick ribbons of pink raw fish—cool, rich and loosely spooled—take the place of beef. The fish rests near a splayed avocado wedge covered with sesame seeds. Charred scallion stalks are planked over the seaweed. Beads of wasabi aioli swirl in the empty spaces.
"Everybody's doing sushi the same way," Morgan says. "I was trying to think of a way to do sushi...to redo sushi in a not-so-normal way." Morgan's aim is to express the Market's décor in his cuisine, to reflect its shapes, its minimalism, its generous swaths of clean space—even its quirkiness.
If Morgan weren't so sober, it would be easy to see his cuisine careening out of control, with all of the scattered and exotic influences he's collected clashing with the challenging edges of the décor from which he draws inspiration. But his food is remarkably restrained. Instead of inventing new formulas, Morgan innovates new forms, tucking subtle flavor variations in the shadows to maintain integrity even as it creates new sensations.
The Caesar salad is just this: a simple array of four or five romaine ribs neatly resting in symmetry, a single garlic roasted crouton and Parmesan shavings on top. Silvery rolled anchovies, Spanish ones, marinated, are placed in a corner of the plate. A short burst of cumin issues from the Hawaiian red snapper ceviche, a mound of precisely diced fish interlaced with mango chunks and jalapeño slices. It's exquisitely controlled because Morgan has teased out a workable juice formula—roughly 60 percent lime with 40 percent orange—and flash cooks for just 20 minutes. This moderates the lime intensity as it annuls the orange sweetness while preserving natural fish flavors and textures.
Loup de mer—or wolf fish, a gnarly, ugly thing armed with sharp teeth and powerful molars for feeding on shellfish, lobsters mostly—is crusted with kalamata olive, sun-dried tomato, artichoke and fava beans. All this is in a light saffron broth. The fish explodes in gusts of sweet just before the savory elements unleash their foiling prowess.
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Morgan dredges huge soft-shell crabs in flour and cornstarch and pan sears them into a delicate crisp before resting them in a lemony Asian rice to counterpoint its plump sweet brackishness. He plows a mouth-melting skate through tapioca starch, sautés it, settles it in a caper beurre blanc and then butts it against an Italian white bean ragout to ring out even more buttery complexity.
But it doesn't stop with fish. There a rich grass-fed rib eye, every bit as robust as its corn-fattened sibling, plus an astounding free-range chicken. Morgan creates a herbed gnocchi with Parmesan that's creamed silk in the mouth. He crafts a deft porcini-dusted lobster mac and cheese that's unsparing in its lithely layered complexity.
Finish with the Market's most notable deconstruction, a take-apart of crème brûlée that kicks new life into this monotonous culinary form. A perfect pyramid of pumpkin custard (panna cotta, actually) crowned with a smear of crème fraîche duels with a dab of Captain Morgan crème Anglaise with mace dusted around the plate to yank at the savory flavors in the pumpkin. Dallas Fish Market is proof that some things are best when wrecked.
1501 Main St., 214-744-3474. Open 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday, 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday $$$-$$$$