When was the last time your server could answer all your questions about a menu without first consulting with the kitchen? At Fishbar, ours even knew the lineage of each oyster on the chalkboard. And he also happened to be a master oyster shucker. Mighty impressive.
Now perhaps the owner will consider allowing guests to throw their empty shells on the floor, anything to hide the hideous floor tiles that look like a festering fungus beneath your feet. Not to mention extraordinarily uncomfortable
wooden banquettes that, if you lean back, easily wrench vertebrae number five out of alignment. And what decor accents like a fire hydrant and a bowling pin have to do with the sea is anyone's guess unless the theme they were going for was mid-century SpongeBob. But regardless of the design vision veteran restaurateur William Tavares had in mind when he came up with his all-fish concept, he's been in the business for more than 20 years, behind such successes as Le Gourmand, Galo Fine Foods and Salt Wine Bar (just a few doors north), so we'll let the little lapse in taste slide.
And with a very capable chef David Friedman (Fuzion, Kaiseki Sakura, Table 17) at the helm, one might expect less predictable offerings for his small yet focused menu. Marketed as a Canadian oyster and seafood small plate wine bar with Ocean-Wise selections, the few attempts at being innovative fail, even if the portions and prices are pleasing. Some things do astonish, though. Fantastically fresh oysters (Malpeque, Merigomish Harbour and Village Bay 2/$5.50) set on ice with rockweed and freshly grated horseradish deliver fresh briny, not tinny, goodness. But a codfish brandade ($6) has more the consistency of a New England clam chowder than a silky spread to accompany clarified butter, chives and crostini. It could also use a good salt sprinkle - yes, for rehydrated saltcod, the world's most sodium-laden food!
And similarly, the too-timid ceviche ($14), one of the best and most refreshing selections for summer tapas, needs a stronger hit of lime. Had this halibut spent more time in a citrus bath, it could have been a contender to steal the Best Ceviche(TM) title from the Boulevard Cafe whose owned it since the late '80s. A few squirts to the rescue is all it took to preserve the life of this dish. Now all they have to do is lose those sweet potato matchsticks. With ceviche?
Sometimes presentation is everything. And as charming as a boat in a bottle is, a Steelhead trout Rillette ($7) is cleverly corked with a stopper of clarified butter that oozes its way into the bottled spread. Add some pickled ramps and ya got one hellava fish pate. Even fish 'n' chips ($11), no surprise, has a higher than average fish to batter ratio, a thick fillet of halibut lightly coated in a practically greaseless beer batter. Even if a bit bland and soggy (a few moments more would get it golden crispy), flawless fries make this plate near perfect, which isn't exactly the way we'd describe their attempt at a Caesar salad ($7). Adding mackerel is a nice touch, but an overwrought goopy mayo dressing will have you wanting to toss the lot back to the sea. Now, if there was any anchovy in that dressing,....
Even a nice piece of grilled tuna ($13) can't move beyond mediocre. Seared perhaps a trifle too long to lose its ruby red jewel centre, paired with a cranberry bean salad makes it masquerade as a heavy fall-like cassoulet instead a the lighter fare option that it was probably meant to be. But nothing light was intended with a pair of oyster pogos ($8), one of few items that ventures out of the safety zone. And while it displays some form of whimsy from the kitchen, they are much better in theory than practice.
Desserts have potential, though. Local rhubarb in sweet syrup ($8) is a bit too toothsome and could use a bit more stewing, while its accompanying rhubarb sorbet not only accomplishes to water down the flavour, but adds another layer of monotony instead of flavour contrast. As for the lemon tart ($8), well, it's not exactly a tart at all; it's more like a mini lemon meringue pie with a slightly undercooked over-buttered crust with a marshmallow -style top (aka Italian meringue?. Thankfully, the custard, though a bit thin, has a wow pucker factor.
Fishbar is like a half finished paint canvas: only part of the final picture is complete. There is still time to turn this work-in-progress into something that local foodies can come to appreciate. In the meantime, keep your gaze away from the floor, and play it safe with oysters, (which you can, thankfully, also get to go!)