Restaurant Review

Impressive selection, grilling are the stars of evolving Fish House

CorrespondentMay 18, 2012 

  • More information Fish House 4020 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd., Durham 919-237-1935 www.fishhousedurham.co Cuisine: seafood Rating: **1/2 (two and a half stars) Prices: $$$ Atmosphere: dramatically colorful mix of East and West Noise level: moderate Service: friendly but erratic Recommended: gyoza, grilled seafood entrees, coconut cake Open: Lunch Thursday, Friday and Sunday; dinner nightly. Reservations: accepted Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; parking lot The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: *  *  *  *  *  Extraordinary *  *  *  *  Excellent. *  *  *  Above average. *  *  Average. *  Fair. The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

I never introduce myself in a restaurant I’m reviewing, but I do telephone after my last visit to check my facts and get a little background for the article. When I called Fish House owner Charles Meteesatien, he obligingly answered all my questions.

Then he turned the tables. By the time we were done, he had asked nearly as many questions as I had.

Sushi chef and owner of the successful ShabaShabu in Raleigh, Meteesatien had initially tried to establish a second location of his Japanese-Thai restaurant at this site in Durham. The spinoff failed to find a following, though, and Meteesatien decided to try a different concept. He opened Fish House, billed as a “grilled fish & wine bar,” in December.

The concept is a new one for Meteesatien, and he’s still refining it. When I spoke to him on the phone, his questions were clearly aimed at getting my impressions and suggestions for improvement. Here’s a recap of our Q and A, where I was answering the questions:

Q: What do you think of the concept?

A: I think it’s a good one and should be welcome in an area where sushi bars and fried seafood joints abound but places where you can get a good piece of grilled fish are hard to find.

That the menu builds on Meteesatien’s longstanding relationships with sushi-grade seafood suppliers is a bonus. The result of those relationships is an impressive selection: more than a dozen fish and shellfish varieties from around the world, from North Carolina grouper to wild Alaskan salmon to Japanese yellowtail. Depending on the catch, the offering might also include Pacific bluenose bass or pink snapper from Hawaii.

Q: Do you like the signature sauces?

A: I like that they’re offered as a mix-and-match list, allowing you to choose your own sauce (six options, from ginger-tomato coulis to chimichurri) to go with your fish. And, as someone who generally prefers his grilled fish minimally adorned, I especially like that the sauce is served on the side.

Q: What changes would you make to the menu?

A: I’d streamline it and increase the emphasis on the grilled seafood. As it stands, the house specialty gets lost in a menu awash with sandwiches, salads, soups, landlubber entrees and other fare. Does a restaurant that bills its specialty as grilled fish really need four steak options? Eight salads? Twelve sides to choose from?

Besides focusing the spotlight where it should be, a pared-down menu would allow the kitchen to concentrate on doing a few things well. Consistency would likely improve dramatically. Butter-braised kale, tender one night, wouldn’t be chewy the next. Panko-crusted fries, touted by the server as being a must even though they’re not listed on the menu, wouldn’t turn out to be a soggy disappointment when you take the bait. The promised masago in a seared scallop appetizer wouldn’t turn up AWOL.

Q: Were there any bright spots?

A: Absolutely. Everything I sampled from the grilled seafood list was irreproachably fresh and properly cooked, including the yellowtail that was served a buttery medium-rare, precisely as I’d specified. The only miscue from the grill was the heavy-handed seasoning that marred an otherwise exemplary order of grilled North Carolina jumbo shrimp.

Highlights from the appetizer list included exceptional pork gyoza and a combination platter of panko-crusted fried eggplant and calamari whose delicate crusts restored the faith I’d lost in the kitchen’s frying skills as a result of those unfortunate panko-crusted fries.

But my favorite dish of all those I tasted at Fish House – OK, maybe it’s a tie with the grilled yellowtail – is the Caribbean coconut cake. Made fresh daily by Meteesatien’s wife, Arada, it’s exquisitely moist and so light you’ll start off thinking it’s big enough to share and then regret offering to share it.

Q: What about the decor?

A: It’s dramatic, certainly, and the colorful paper lanterns and burlap screen partitions echo the undercurrent of Asian flavors that runs throughout the menu. I particularly like the “wave” of blue neon that flows along the dining room wall.

But the space is too dark for a restaurant specializing in fresh seafood. You can’t do anything about those rock walls that are a vestige of the building’s former incarnation as a Macaroni Grill, but painting the ceiling off-white (or maybe a pale shade of sky blue) instead of black would help transform the look of those walls from Medieval European castle to oceanside grotto.

Q: And the wine bar?

A: Again, a solid concept, and the selection at Fish House – nearly three dozen wines by the glass – is more than respectable. The method of delivery is fun, too: Wine is brought to the table in a mini carafe and poured into the glass at the table.

Unfortunately, some staffers haven’t been taught that pouring a second (different) wine into the same glass that held the first is a no-no. Friendly as they are, in fact, the wait staff could stand more training across the board.

For all his experience, it’s clear that Meteesatien is sailing in uncharted waters with Fish House. Given his record at the original ShabaShabu, though – and his openness to suggestions for improvement – I’m guessing he’ll navigate those waters skillfully once he gets his bearings.

ggcox@bellsouth.net or blogs@newsobserver.com/mouthful

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