ORIGINAL FISH MARKET | Dining Reviews | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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ORIGINAL FISH MARKET

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Since learning that the Original Fish Market keeps a kitchen open 'til 1 a.m. (on the weekdays even, in this city that seems to shutter up before the 11 o'clock news on weekends), I've wanted to hit the joint very late and see what fine dining after midnight is like. Typically, like this fair city, I'm rarely awake at such hours, and for this experiment could manage only to breeze in a little before 10 on a dull Thursday (no Downtown events). Still, I was gratified to find the restaurant and bar lively (and indeed, when I left after 11, diners were still arriving).

Dark reddish wood with a vague Mission feel gives the Fish Market an elegant yet cozy atmosphere. Large ceiling lamps of frosted glass appear to disgorge chunks of brightly colored rock candy. Maritime accents are subtle and quirky. Near our booth, there was retro-ish wallpaper of frolicking mermaids; across the room, the paper was an Escher-like pattern of ever-melding fish. A quick glance in the subdued lighting, and one can't believe they've hung fishing nets across the windows. A closer inspection reveals cleverly layered fine fabrics whose textures mimic both netting and large swaths of crinkly seaweed. The very observant will be further rewarded to discover that up high near the curtain rods some decorator wag has attached rubbery, plaintive-eyed toy squids.

Oysters can be ordered from the raw bar by the piece ($2), and a diner can mix-and-match oysters from West and East coasts. We partook of smooth-textured oysters from the Atlantic provinces: These beautifully presented treats from Prince Edward Island sat in their rugged but pretty shells surrounded by enough accompaniments for a dozen oysters -- a tomato-based oyster sauce and a spicy vinegar and scallion dip, as well as the standbys, lemon and lime.

We also indulged in a plate of peppered smoked salmon ($7.75). Served with the traditional capers and red onions, the dish was capped by a generous portion of clotted cream (lightly seasoned with horseradish). Too often, a whipped cream cheese is offered, but I much prefer the lighter pure cream, which better supports and complements the dish's other strong flavors. We couldn't fit all the salmon and fixin's onto the pesto-encrusted toast slivers, but polished it off nonetheless. Not a morsel wasted.

The restaurant offers a wide selection of a la carte fresh seafood, which can be supplemented by sides of vegetables, rice and potatoes. (For those certain diners who never do fish, there are four meat entrees.) I debated assembling my own dinner -- perhaps a rainbow trout cooked Hong Kong-style (with fresh ginger and scallions in a sherry and soy sauce) with jasmine rice, but ultimately we both surrendered to two of the dozen entrée specialties that combine fish with imaginative sauces and more unusual vegetables.

My companion ordered the cumin and cornmeal-dusted sea bass ($24), which arrived -- beautifully golden brown -- atop a tiny sea of black bean puree out of which crisp fried tortilla strips jutted. Within the bean puree were corn morsels and grilled red chilis (that still held plenty of zing). I'd opted for an oregano-and-lemon grilled swordfish ($24), not least because the menu listed an accompanying "Greek salad of feta, cucumbers and tomatoes." Needless to say, I was a trifle taken aback when my fish arrived -- topped with a snarl of thin batter-dipped fried onions -- and no "salad" in sight. But wait -- there beneath the fish were cored cucumbers, tomatoes and feta (slowly, deliciously melting) in a rich roasted garlic and cardamom cream sauce.

There is no natural quality standard for cooked fish -- fish, after all, are put on this planet to live their time raw -- yet both pieces of fish were as moist and flaky, and as sublime, as if fish could be found perfectly cooked in nature.

Even if there were a fantastic place where crème brulee could be found in nature, no ecosystem, however blessed, could produce the otherworldy creation offered here that is mocha cappuccino crème brulee. Beneath a mound of whipped cream and the subtlest caramelized crust lay a velvety light pudding of complex flavors (coffee and chocolate) tamed into perfect harmony. My companion ordered it; I shamelessly ate most of it, as well as my own dessert, a perfectly lovely chocolate and raspberry opera cake. Frankly, only discretion -- and the watchful eye of a baleful rubber squid -- stopped me from calling for another crème brulee. After all, the restaurant was open for another two hours. * * * 1/2

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