I never introduce myself in a restaurant Im 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 hes still refining it. When I spoke to him on the phone, his questions were clearly aimed at getting my impressions and suggestions for improvement. Heres a recap of our Q and A, where I was answering the questions:
Q: What do you think of the concept?
A: I think its 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 Meteesatiens 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 theyre 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: Id 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, wouldnt be chewy the next. Panko-crusted fries, touted by the server as being a must even though theyre not listed on the menu, wouldnt turn out to be a soggy disappointment when you take the bait. The promised masago in a seared scallop appetizer wouldnt 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 Id 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 Id lost in the kitchens 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 its a tie with the grilled yellowtail is the Caribbean coconut cake. Made fresh daily by Meteesatiens wife, Arada, its exquisitely moist and so light youll start off thinking its big enough to share and then regret offering to share it.
Q: What about the decor?
A: Its 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 cant do anything about those rock walls that are a vestige of the buildings 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 havent 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, its 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 Im guessing hell navigate those waters skillfully once he gets his bearings.
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