Richard Foss

FishBar [RESTAURANT REVIEW]

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Fishbar Restaurant

FishBar executive chef Jessica Jordan and co-owner Zac Rothman. Photo by Alexandra Mandekic/alexandramandekic.com

Anyone who has tried living in a house that is in the midst of a major remodeling knows that it’s no fun at all. You put up with having to go around sawhorses to get to the bathroom, the sawdust and plastic sheeting everywhere. But it’s disruptive; it doesn’t feel like your old home, and you don’t even know what your new home is going to be like.

Now imagine going through that process while throwing a dinner party every evening. That’s the equivalent of what FishBar inManhattan Beachhas been doing — a complete remodel without missing a day of business. As Baja Sharkeez, the place was a fratboy beach hangout, deliberately and amiably scruffy. As the place morphed into FishBar, the layout stayed similar but touches of class showed up – tapa cloth and woven palm fronds brought a South Pacific feel — the bar no longer looked like hyenas had been chewing on it, and one day the tables weren’t wobbly any more.

The food had no such smooth transition – from the first day, it became remarkably better, mostly simple fish dinners at very modest prices. You could walk in with a twenty dollar bill and have a good meal, a glass of wine or beer, and still not stiff the server on the tip. Then it got even better, as chef Jessica Jordan moved in from Hermosa’s North End and added her Southwestern and eclectic inspirations. I watched the place evolve for a while, holding off writing a review in case they were going to go through some new evolution. They still tinker with the place and may keep tinkering for the next decade, but the broad outlines seem to be set.

The room is set up like a bar that serves food instead of a restaurant, with comfortable high-topped tables and booths and a few lower tables in a corner. An eyeball-searing number of TVs are tuned to at least three different channels, and there is literally no place you can sit without flashing and flickering screens to distract you from your meal. Luckily the TV’s aren’t all shouting at each other – instead, there is a soundtrack of modern rock at sound levels that are usually moderate. (On game days the sound is on and the TVs are on at most two channels, so it’s less visually disruptive.)

The menu fits both halves of the restaurant’s name – lots of fish, with a few steaks and burgers so non-pescetarians aren’t completely left out, and an array of wines by the glass and specialty cocktails. I usually have wine with dinner, but have sampled a tasty Margarita and a special Bloody Mary with bacon and pickled asparagus. For both food and drink, you should never order without consulting the specials board and your server. Jessica likes to create daily specials depending on available fresh ingredients or personal whim, and they are always worth trying; if ceviche is offered while you are there, it’s a must-have.

On a recent evening we started our meal with a special of tempura salmon bites served over a drizzle of wasabi sauce. Deep-frying an oily fish like salmon is a risky decision, but they pull it off here – the fish arrived with the batter crisp and fish flaky. The wasabi sauce was unexpectedly mild, but if you liked it spicier or just had a death-wish you could eat the jalapeno pepper that decorated the top of each piece. (Just kidding – the seeds had been removed, so it wasn’t all that spicy.)

We continued with what the menu refers to as an Almost Traditional Caesar salad; a puzzling name, because it actually tasted very traditional and very good. It had a nicely balanced anchovy sharpness and there was no stinting on the cheese, and while I preferred a bit more pepper, I was in the minority. All the salads we have had here have been first rate – FishBar does a good version of a Cobb, and a spinach, bay shrimp, bacon, and mushroom salad that is excellent. It helps that whatever salad you order will come with hot fresh sourdough bread that is so popular that they sell loaves to go.

For main courses I had selected a daily special of crispy sand dabs, while my companions had Alaskan halibut and an order of lobster tacos. Sand dabs are a nostalgic meal for me, as I remember catching the weird-looking critters from theManhattan Beachpier as a kid. The small, flat fish are similar to sole or perch but with more flavor, and they’re not often on local menus. The two filets were nicely pan-fried and served with tangy homemade tartar sauce, garlic spinach, and mashed potatoes. It was a full but not overwhelming main course. The halibut had been offered mesquite grilled with garlic butter and paprika or spice rubbed and blackened, and I chose grilled. I think it was the right decision, as Cajun spices would have overwhelmed the flavor of the fresh fish. Any two of a variety of sides are included, and if you like sweet potato fries and garlic spinach, that’s my favorite pair, though the garlic fries and cole slaw come in a close second.

Since we were visiting on Tuesday, the lobster tacos were on special, $7 instead of $11. This alone is enough reason to visit on Tuesday, and if you consider that excellent fish and shrimp tacos are available at a still greater discount, you can understand why the place is lively that night. The lobster is tempura-fried, as it should be, since lobster tacos were invented by Japanese fishermen inMexico, and they are the best I have ever had. Two of these with an appetizer or salad really is a satisfying meal, and it’s a good bet even when the calendar doesn’t say they’re on special.

We had just enough room for one shared dessert, and we chose a bread pudding that was the only thing that didn’t exceed our expectations. The mix of bread in custard had a rich, lightly sweet flavor but was missing that certain something, a dash of cinnamon and spice to liven it up. It was not bad, but a bit timid compared to what had come before.

Our meal for three, with two margaritas and a glass of Votre Sante Pinot Noir, was ninety dollars before tip – not at all bad for a delicious meal of fresh fish. FishBar will probably continue to evolve – they’ll eventually get a real sign to replace the temporary banner – but they’re ready, willing, and able to deliver an enjoyable experience right now.

FishBar is at 3801 Highland Ave. in Manhattan Beach; open daily for lunch and dinner, weekends for breakfast. Street parking or nearby metered lot. Full bar, sports-themed and other specials – check website at FishBarmb.com. Phone 310-796-0200.  ER   

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