Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Fish Story

I'm a seafood junkie.  Unfortunately for pescophiles like me, Napa Valley is not known for its fruits de mer--something entirely natural and obvious when you consider that the best local wines are reds with a good bit of backbone and bite.  Local menus tilt to the meaty side here, with maybe one fish option... unless you're at Morimoto or Go Fish, of course, in which case you're either ready to drop a ton of cash, or upvalley.  I don't find myself in either position very often, which is why the arrival of Fish Story at Napa's downtown waterfront is this fish fiend's dream come true.  High-end cooking, medium-end prices, and low-end pretension make it feel like the seafood restaurant I've always wanted in my neighborhood.  Especially because Stephen Barber--who was the chef at MECCA in San Francisco when I lived in the neighborhood--is running the show kitchen-side.

Naturally I had to check it out on opening night, along with my partner in crime and hundreds of other curious folks from near and far.  When I checked Open Table at around 11:45 that morning, there were still table reservations available at all prime dinner times.  When I arrived at the restaurant at 7:00, though, the hostess told me that they were fully booked for the evening.  Over two hundred and fifty seats reserved on a Monday night?!? Well done, Napa. Times they are a-changing.

Since my PIC and I prefer barside dining anyway, we hadn't bothered with reservations and just installed ourselves at the 10-seat horseshoe bar.  The bar/lounge space is very distinctly separated from the dining area, as if they are two unrelated restaurants.  The bar portion has over 20 seats inside--8 or 10 tall stools at the bar counter and another 10-12 seats at smaller two-tops--and probably another 10-15 seats outside on the front patio for those who want to drink outside and not necessarily commit to any food.  A quirky/freaky octopus fountain is on hand to charm and delight the denizens of the front garden area, and a well-stocked overhead bar challenges the indoor patrons to spot their liquor of choice based solely on bottle shape.  From what we could tell, the opening night bar crowd was a mix of curious locals and lucky tourists who happened in just in time to score a seat.  The bar was full by 7:15, and the staff had to bring out extra barstools to accommodate the parents of one of the servers.
If the full bar and cocktail menu don't suck you in, Fish Story also brews its own beer right there in the restaurant.  The shiny tanks are installed behind glass partitions on the way to the main dining room, to demonstrate they're truly the brew pub they told the ABC they are.  Fish Story ales are available on draft, as are a surprisingly large selection of local wines.  GM Treg Finney told us that the wineries provide the restaurant with special pressurized "kegs" of wine that keep the product totally fresh to the last drop.  There's also a pleasing selection of wines by the more traditional bottle and glass, from California as well as more distant lands.

But on to the fish, because that's why we're here. 

The favorite dishes of the night were the lobster roll, the scallop portion of the scallop dish, and the tuna tartare we ordered as an afterthought.  Tuna tartare is so ubiquitous and overdone that I almost never order it in a restaurant, even though raw tuna is one of the great loves of my life.  EVERYONE does a tuna tartare, and it's usually decent, but not particularly challenging or exciting.  Fish Story's interpretation, however, totally rocks the boat with unexpected textures and unusual flavors: crispy toasted hazelnut bits, hazelnut oil, and a microscopic brunoise of serrano peppers and citrus zest.  The menu description also mentioned asian pear, but I was too enthralled with the surprise hazelnut crunch (not mentioned on the description) to notice that sweetness.  Great stuff.  It went fast and I will definitely be back for more.

The lobster roll, that classic seafood house staple, was styled after the New England original--a buttered, toasted, split white bread bun with a Maine lobster salad filling, housemade potato chips, and a side of cole slaw. 

I am not generally a fan of mayonaise-based salads.  Fortunately for me, this lobster salad was made with a lot more than mayo--fresh chopped parsley, thinly sliced celery, and a bright lemony punch took this one up to a completely different level, and was gorgeous match with the Chablis we were drinking at the time.  The cole slaw was also surprisingly tasty and refined, thanks to the fine angel-hair strands of green and red cabbage, and the light tangy dressing that seasoned, rather than drowned its target.

But damn, we couldn't keep our hands off that butter-kissed bun.  Even after the lobster was gone, that toasty gift from god rocked the party.  Not a single crumb survived.

Our other favorite bites of the night were the seared scallops that came as part of the "Day Boat Scallops and Kurobuta Pork Belly with fresh black eyed peas and Swiss chard" entree.  These luscious creatures were perfectly seared and seasoned, succulently moist with that incomparable oceany minerality... and of course gone in a flash.  You'll notice from the picture at right that the dish appears to come with four scallops.  But as you cut into one of the darker scallops, you realize that the kitchen has not in fact made a collossal error of overcooking, but rather... the thing you thought was a scallop is actually a huge piece of pork. Pork belly. Cleverly disguised as a scallop.  As someone who has never loved big slabs of pork belly on a plate, I would have prefered these pork pucks cut up smaller and cooked in with the peas, leaving the scallops alone (perhaps with some scallop reinforcements) on top of the porky beans.  But that's me.  The Kurobuta pork had great flavor, and pork belly lovers would probably cream their pants tat the opportunity to eat these massive hunks.  But.  For me, the two true scallops stole the show, and I will rave about them for many days to come.

Fish Story has a ton to offer, and I'm dying to get back and try their fluke ceviche with espelette pepper, olives, and Meyer lemon olive oil, as well as their chili-roasted Dungeness Crab, as well as their Tombo Tuna with grilled artichoke, olives, and onion relish.  I'm also tempted to go for their "Hook Line & Sinker" prix fixe menu, which (the night I was there) consisted of a cup of chowder or Little Gem salad, choice of grilled Idaho trout or shrimp and grits, and a butterscotch pudding for $27.  An embarassment of riches.  I'm sure their lunch menu--once they start serving next week--will have many other irresistible items as well. 

Opening night hiccups must be forgiven, and brand new restaurants always need a few months to find their sea legs.  I'm utterly convinced that Fish Story is destined for greatness on the Napa waterfront, and I am beyond stoked to have been there at the beginning.  It will only get better from here.

PS: check out this chicken purse we spotted next to us at the bar... I think its owner is a local so keep your eyes peeled for another sighting... AWESOME.

1 comment:

  1. Mmm! I am salivating (and unashamed). I'm going in a week and a half (delaying the pleasure, see) and cannot wait! Great writeup.