Maybe it was the nautical bric-a-brac and sculpted fish of every conceivable stripe, both real and imaginary, that surrounded me. Or maybe it was just the fried flounder on my plate. Whatever the reason, it struck me as I dined at Fishmonger's recently that the search for a good restaurant meal is akin to fishing.
A good fisherman needs to be well-versed in the habits and habitat of his target catch, just as the diner improves his chances of getting a good meal by knowing a restaurant's history, pedigree and style.
Based on that, Fishmonger's would appear to be a most promising spot to drop a line. Owner Gary Bass (yes, it's his real name) opened the establishment in 1983, initially as a seafood market. Over the years, Fishmonger's evolved into a restaurant, and the market side of the business dwindled to a secondary role.
But the fishmonger spirit lives on in the restaurant in the form of one of the area's most extensive offerings of fresh seafood in the Triangle. Fresh flounder and shrimp from the Carolina and Gulf Coasts, oysters harvested exclusively from the waters off Louisiana, and live lobsters and mussels from Maine and Canada are among the bounty delivered several times a week. Dungeness crabs are flown in from Seattle when they're in season (November through April), as are blue crabs from the mid-Atlantic coast (July through October). Soft shells should be in season by the time you read this.
Fishmonger's looks the part, too. Its picnic tables draped in butcher paper, its reassuring, timeworn dinginess and the supremely laid-back attitude of its wait staff add up to quintessential coastal raw bar/seafood shack.
As any experienced angler will tell you, however, even when all indications point to a promising fishing hole, there's no guarantee of a good catch every time. Such is the case with Fishmonger's.
One night, fried flounder is so sweet and moist under its crunchy cracker meal crust that it tastes like an entirely different species from the thin, overcooked-to-a-flavorless-parchment fish that too often goes by the name. Steamed peel 'n' eat shrimp are finger-licking succulent. And the grilled wahoo that's offered as a chalkboard special is flawless.
The next time you visit, the flounder is dry and the breading too heavy. The steamed shrimp are overcooked, as is the grilled wahoo.
Like an experienced angler, you look for patterns to explain the widely variable experience. Is the food generally better on weeknights or weekends? Is steamed better than fried? Do problems appear to be more often the result of mistakes in the kitchen or by the wait staff?
Without a doubt, slow service is sometimes to blame - for the Cajun-style barbecued shrimp that are delivered lukewarm to the table, for instance. Beyond that, you'll search in vain for a pattern.
Don't bother with the "kitchen had an off night" theory. On the same night that you suffer through those lukewarm barbecued shrimp and an anemic shrimp cocktail, you score an excellent batch of house-battered onion rings and a first-rate steamed platter of snow crab legs, shrimp and oysters.
On another visit, raw oysters were impeccable, and steamed top neck clams as good as you've had in recent memory. But this time around, steamed oysters are inexplicably dry.
The same night that the wahoo is such a disaster, you're served an ambrosial North Carolina style oyster stew.
The night that the grilled wahoo is so stellar, grilled grouper and fried catfish are likewise rewarding. It's all so good, in fact, that you'd be inclined to think that the kitchen has really got its act together -- if only these entrees hadn't followed an appetizer course highlighted by overcooked tuna nuggets and a too-thick New England clam chowder that tastes more of bacon than clams.
Judging by my experience, I'd say the chances of landing a keeper at Fishmonger's are about 2-to-1 in favor. Normally, I wouldn't say those are good odds. But if you have the patience of a good fisherman, you're sure to land a prize catch every now and then that makes the whole experience worthwhile.
Greg Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org