You've got to admire chef David Friedman (Fishbar, Table 17), if for nothing else than his painstaking devotion, ensuring that every morsel from the mer at Red Fish is environmentally sustainable. But it's not just his saintly eco-friendliness that makes him so praiseworthy; his cleverly constructed menu places it at the polar opposite of many a mainstream fish house. This is the joint for the real seafood lover in you.
Friedman's fun yet serious approach is instantly recognizable with a charc
uterie-type platter titled Chef's Bored ($22). Instead of yer typical template of cured meats, this delicately presented, yet hefty portion includes a scallop crudo with poached rhubarb and vanilla salt, arctic char belly and an albacore tuna tartare blended beautifully with a tomatillo salsa. Notwithstanding scallops that need a bit more time at room temp, this fish dish is pretty flawless with added highlights of pickled green beans, mushrooms and an Ontario shiro plum. Equal kudos for a steelhead trout rillette ($14). Not only for its pretty message-in-a-bottle (okay, Mason jar) presentation, but for the obviously laborious process involved: the fish is first steamed over water with aromatics to a medium rare, then seasoned with star anise, black pepper and salt before breaking it up with shallots, fennel fronds and olive oil. And let's not forget the massive amount of clarified butter (ghee) used to seal this pretty pink concoction, ideal for spreading on some homemade sourdough toast. It may be a bit light on the flavour scale, but it's nothing that a sprinkle of fleur de sel can't instantly remedy.
And how does chef get his octopus ssam ($12) so tender, that is, short of beating them against the rocks like a Greek fisherman. All it takes is a braise in red wine and aromatics to make these seafood wraps a melt in your mouth miracle. But a more judicious use of ssamjang, a spicy, thick Korean paste, might not only help magnify the tang of some pickled black radish and local yellow beets but also showcase this dish for its terrific textural composition. But I dare you to find something seriously wrong with a BC ling cod ceviche ($15), done Peruvian style with shallots, chili, cilantro, lime and coriander oil, other than the fact that it could use a tad more curing time. Ah, the curse of a refined palate....
Much like how a steak frites acts as a barometer of success for a French bistro, so too the scallop functions at a seafood restaurant. And though passable, some seared weathervane scallops ($17) are improperly cooked. Tsk, tsk. And seafood is barely detectable in its accompanying octopus hash. But one bite of an arctic char ($27) and this slip-up is but a distant memory. On a bed of homemade apple horseradish gnocchi, locally farmed bacon and a smattering of charred chanterelles for added smokiness, this definitive dish is one that a restaurant can stake its reputation on. Unlike the shrimp and grits ($25); soul-crushing doesn't even come close to describe our disappointment with this Southern soul food classic.
Ironically, a non-fish dish really impresses, like a beef cheek tortellini ($23). Handmade pasta pockets filled with braised meat are mixed with caramelized shallots for a slight sweetness. Served in a crab consommÃ© with julienned carrots, celery and fennel with a poached artichoke and hen of the woods mushrooms, it's masterful.
Desserts are on the larger, vulgar side, which might make for a nice value proposition, but they're a bit messy. A pavlova's ($8) puckery lemon curd and masterful meringue hits all the right notes. Too bad it looks like a broken sunny-side-up egg on steroids, its blueberry compote lost in the translation. And a chocolate pot au crÃ¨me ($8) is so rich that sour sea buckthorn seeds barely register on the palate. A few spoonfuls will sate, but it's an odd grainy consistency that will deter you from sneaking a few more mouthfuls.
Chef Friedman definitely demonstrates some culinary refinement while trying to make seafood exciting again. Sadly, execution is inconsistent. And with a famed seafood competitor like Chiado just down the road, he'd better get it right in short order. It might also help if the servers were a little more well-versed with menu items. An intimate understanding and knowledge of the food they're serving can go a long way to instil confidence among customers. When describing some stellar homemade bread, we're told it's "bread fife." Really? Of course you mean Red Fife? I reply without a hint of condescension...