Fishbar, on Ossington, is open at last – the long-awaited new project from William Tavares (an original partner in Salt, a few doors north) and chef David Friedman (Vancouver-trained and most recently sous chef at Table 17). We took some friends there on Friday and had a very good time. It reminds me of Kitchen Galerie Poisson in Montreal (at 399 Rue Notre-Dame Ouest, to be precise), one of my favourite, merrily informal spots in that talented town, only Fishbar lacks KGP’s kick-ass foie gras. What they do have in common is a cool but unpretentious décor of open brick walls and wooden tables, not to mention excellent oysters and a laid-back party atmosphere. Fishbar’s wooden benches are a bit hard on the bum and I’ve probably seen enough Edison light bulbs by now to last me a lifetime, but all such teeny issues evaporate once the food starts to arrive.
The oysters come from Rodney’s and we tried three different kinds – some mild, sweet beauties from New Brunswick; briney, substantial, temptingly metallic Mystic Cocktails from Connecticut; and great big, full-flavoured Marina Top Drawer from B.C. They were accompanied by three sauces: a classic red cocktail, a decent ponzu and a tart, spicy “apple orchard” sauce like fruity mustard. Oysters are also served as pogos – in other words heavily breaded, stuck on the end of a stick and deep-fried to a mahogany colour. Moist, greaseless and delicious, they were even better when dipped into a loose tomatillo salsa that balanced the corn sweetness of the breading with a sharp, fresh tang.
I love deep-fried smelt especially when they’re on the big side – but not so big that you have to clean them: then you can taste the funky, bitter flavour of their fishy innards. Friday’s smelt were bigger than that so Friedman did clean them but then had the brilliant idea of stuffing them with olive tapenade before fritting them in tempura batter. So I had my bittersweet fix anyway, crispy and piping hot.
Thus we began to work our way through the menu of small plates, a piece of paper divided into “starters,” “cold,” “hot,” “sides” and “dessert.” Almost every dish showed the Ocean Wise symbol, reassuring us of the kitchen’s commitment to using sustainable, ocean-friendly seafood. Halibut ceviche is a case in point, the juices of the soft, tender fish seized but the flavours more to do with salt and coriander oil than citrus. There were lime wedges for a squeeze-your-own moment that perked the dish up considerably. Hair-thin sweet potato fries were too thin to offer much tuberous presence – more like a heap of frying.
Salmon tartare was a champion – the wild sockeye cut into large pieces and tossed with shiso, soy and chopped apple – a great idea and undeniable proof that a tartare doesn’t always need onion. The kitchen pairs it with ethereally thin fried wonton wrappers which are much too delicate and brittle to bear the weight of the fish. I guess we’re supposed to take a forkful of salmon and then a bite of crunchy crunch. As a system, it works admirably.
Chef Friedman does hearty as well as refined – witness a mound of PEI mussels smothered in big chunks of juicy grilled tomato with lumps of chorizo lurking in the tomato sauce. Many slices of baguette were needed to make sure every drop of the sauce was accounted for.
Battered Pacific cod from the Queen Charlottes lies at the heart of his fish and chips – surprisingly the weakest dish of the evening. The chips were fine – unpeeled, slender, crisp where they should be and tender inside – but the flavour of the fish was missing in action, smothered by the taste of the batter. A side dish of fresh bright green peas with flecks of bacon and the wicked sheen of bacon fat totally stole that particular scene.
Dessert restored smiles to faces. They make their own ice creams here and serve a trio of chocolate, honey and goat cheese ice creams, the latter undeniably cheesy and brilliantly framed by the more conventional treats. A giant, crusty chocolate brownie covered in cherry jam and vanilla ice cream ended up as a sort of blue-collar homage to Black Forest cake, swiftly eaten and enjoyed.
Veteran sommelier Jamie Duran is in charge of the wines at Fishbar and has put together an attractive little list that includes a dry Muscat from Terre di Orazio in Basilicata ($44), a crisp, aromatic white that smells like a bunch of lilies, a lovely match for many things on the menu.
Early signs are that Fishbar will be a hit for the team behind it – original, affordable and above all blessed with a chef who understands how to cook seafood and have a little fun while he’s doing it.
Fishbar is open for dinner only, closed on Mondays. 217 Ossington Avenue (a few doors south of Dundas). 647 340 0227. www.fishbar.ca.