Creating a special dining experience in a suburban strip mall is not easy. And while some of our most palatable meals have been at holes-in-the-mall, the aesthetics of strip-mall spaces are challenging. They're usually deep and dark, with only front windows offering only dreary views of the parking lot.
In light of these issues, Rumfish Grille is an unexpected oasis in the Great Southern Shopping Center, just outside of Bridgeville. A felicitous location in the elbow of the mall's two arms gives Rumfish a very large space, which is further broken up by chunky concrete walls and multiple levels, including outdoor patios (still under construction) in the rear. Booths and tables for sit-down dining are arrayed around a series of freestanding bars: a liquor bar, a raw bar and the most open kitchen possible, so that everything but prep work happens in the round, with a low countertop for front-row dining. Though this offers arguably the best view in the house, the others are, blessedly, of the countryside to the rear, not the parking lot out in front.
As the name suggests, the cuisine on offer is seafood. Executive chef Chet Garland (of Toast! Kitchen and Wine Bar) and chef de cuisine Eric Wallace, an alumnus of Up! Modern Kitchen, have a modern yet comfortable take on their catch, offering a variety of distinctive appetizers, a few signature entrées and a build-your-own entrée option that's decidedly more sophisticated than most restaurants offering this option. A dozen fish and shellfish (plus a few steak, pork and poultry options) can be combined with a variety of interesting sauces, starches and vegetables to create a custom dinner, whether your tastes run to truffle jus or mac-n-cheese.
The kitchen has clearly invested a lot of its own creativity in the appetizer list, which made for the most difficult decision-making of the evening. Ceviche was attractively presented in a small Ball canning jar surrounded with crisp, freshly fried tortilla chips. This resulted in a parfait-like layering of ingredients, which made them difficult to extract in balanced combination. But the tender, lime-cured shrimp, corn and grape tomatoes were delicious, and the chips were obviously house-made.
When we ordered the octopus, we expected a salad, but the single grilled tentacle we received, curled as if in mid-swim, may have been the highlight of the entire meal. Its flavor was smoky and slightly charred on the exterior, enhanced by red onion, smoked paprika and aioli, while its interior texture was almost creamily tender. Salmon tartare was also superb, rosy and buttery, and accompanied by crispy, puffy fried wonton wrappers. Only the conch fritters, a delicacy that called to Jason's Florida roots, were a disappointment. Rumfish's version was so short on conch, they seemed like mere hush puppies (albeit excellent ones). The signature spicy hot rum dipping sauce — a piquant remoulade with hints of sweet rum — was a great success, however.
Rather than build her own entrée, Angelique decided to go with a chef's feature of blackened catfish served on a bed of collard greens, black-eyed peas and sweet-potato sauce. Though each of these soul-food staples was excellent on its own, the ensemble didn't meld; she enjoyed this dish most once she'd dissected it into its separate components.
We felt we should try something from the land, and our server sold us on the fried chicken. A half chicken was marinated in hot sauce and then fried with an ultra-thin, crisp coating, resulting in succulent meat that was subtly flavored, not overwhelmed, by the peppery sauce. Corn-on-the-cob was the perfect summer accompaniment.
Our server considerately steered us from another meat dish that was soon to be replaced on the menu, a gesture which, like the heavy equipment in the cabana-courtyard, perfectly captures the work-in-progress vibe at Rumfish. But that doesn't mean that you should postpone your visit. Rumfish Grille has opened hot off the blocks with a seafood menu that is well conceived and exceptionally prepared.