308 Forbes Ave., Downtown. 412-562-1710. www.pennavefishcompany.com
Hours: Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; dinner Wed.-Fri. 6-10 p.m. (reservations recommended)
Prices: Sandwiches, salads and tacos $6-11; entrees $11-27
For starters, let's clear up some confusion. There's Penn Avenue Fish Company, the market, and Penn Avenue Fish Company, the restaurant, but only the market is on Penn Avenue. The market opened its doors a couple of years ago as a high-end, hip destination for Strip District fish buyers, and has always offered some prepared food -- mostly sushi, tacos, sandwiches and pizza -- alongside its fresh fish selection.
The market's success eventually spawned Penn Avenue Fish Company, the restaurant (not to be confused with the Pittsburgh Fish Market, also a Downtown restaurant). This second Penn Avenue location is actually on Forbes Avenue, in a narrow storefront space that feels like a little slice of action in the otherwise moribund -- restaurant-wise, at least -- Fifth-Forbes corridor.
Brick walls, a rustic redwood sushi counter and an oceanic color scheme cast a spell of hipness on a space which offers neither upscale, expense-account dining nor el cheapo, hole-in-the-wall fare. Penn Avenue fills a much-needed niche: Modern, tiny, funky and moderately priced, it's a place to keep worker bees Downtown for dinner -- or to actually lure them there.
Much of the restaurant's menu is casual fare that is closely related to the market's. But a rotating selection of a half-dozen higher-end dishes has been added, marking this Penn Avenue as a genuine restaurant, not just an outpost of the market's to-go counter.
Not that the sandwiches are ordinary: Baja cod wrap, roasted salmon with homemade mustard and yellowfin tuna teriyaki are just a few examples. Jason was thrilled to be asked how he wanted his salmon done on his Sneaky Pete, a highly successful -- and surprisingly un-messy -- combination of grilled salmon (rare, thank you), hearts of palm, arugula and spicy avocado créme sauce on a hearty, seedy ciabatta. All the flavors and textures were in concert, even the hearts of palm, which is hardly a classic sandwich topping.
Angelique consolidated her love for tuna melts and spicy food in one sandwich: a spicy tuna melt, spiked with fresh jalapeños and peppery sriracha sauce. A couple of innovations set this apart from the many other tuna melts she's had: It was served open-face for a generous tuna-to-roll ratio, and the tuna itself was jumbo lump, with a piquant yet creamy dressing just clinging to it under a blanket of molten cheddar and provolone.
Sushi, alas, made a less-sure transition from market to restaurant menu. Yellowtail nigiri was stringy, and maguro had the washed-out flavor we associate with off-season tuna, despite being at season's peak. Still, we may return for the chirashi bowl, an authentic yet uncommonly seen preparation in which sashimi is arranged on a bowl of sushi rice.
Jason had immediate misgivings when his entrée, the confidently named "#1 Tuna," was served: The rare, seared fish on top was more gray than black-charred, and the first bite confirmed its relationship to the watery maguro. The bed of charred tomato rice, corn and okra beneath was good enough to justify finishing the dish, but we began to suspect that Penn Avenue's genius might lie more in original sandwiches than in fine dinners. That was before we tasted a dining companion's Chilean sea bass with crispy potatoes and horseradish créme fraiche. The fish was beautifully roasted, perfectly moist with a hint of crust at the edges, and the sauce had just enough kick to pull together the relatively mild fish and hearty potatoes.
A big bowl of mussels also showed off Penn Avenue's strengths: Some of the plumpest shellfish we've ever had sat in a very lightly creamy sauce studded with slices of raw jalapeño. The cream enriched the briny shellfish broth without weighing it down, while the jalapeños added subtle heat without overwhelming the other flavors. Perhaps most impressive, the peppers didn't weary the palate as we worked through a truly generous portion.
It would have been in character for Jason to love the bacon-wrapped scallops, but the thick-cut bacon was just a bit too much for even these large sea scallops, and it foiled the delicate balance between salty and sweet. The bed of shaved apple-arugula salad, with just a drizzle of cherry-tomato vinaigrette, helped to round out the flavors. Jason was also underwhelmed by the lobster risotto, but Angelique thought the addition of fresh, sweet peas really perked up the creamy arborio rice and rich lobster.
Fish tacos had a tasty blend of swordfish, salmon and tuna, but we'd have preferred a vehicle other than hard taco shells. Shrimp and crab pizza, however, was a superb upgrade to the standard pie. Succulent, spicy shrimp and morsels of crab added sweetness and body to the classic base of mozzarella and tomato sauce; a handful of fresh diced tomatoes in the center added liveliness even in deep winter. The crust, meanwhile, was far better than you'd expect from a place with just one pizza on the menu.
Downtown has always been thin on restaurants to fill the gap between humble lunch counter and snooty steakhouse. But Penn Avenue Fish Company fits right in the middle, with contemporary offerings in a hip, yet unpretentious space.
- Heather Mull
- Chilean sea bass on potato-leek gratin with spring peas and cauliflower puree