Fresh look at fresh seafood

Fishbar has a lively atmosphere that fits its history. The building has been a seafood house and bar for over seven decades. Photo by Richard Foss

Fishbar hasn’t tinkered with a winning formula

Sometimes readers contact me to ask why I haven’t reviewed one of their favorite spots, to my momentary puzzlement. The experience is still fresh in my mind, as is the lead I composed for the article… Let me look that up in my archive. Hmmm, this was published two decades ago, funny how time flies. Perhaps it’s time to write about them again, even if I haven’t noticed substantial changes at recent visits.

It was just such a query that led me to notice that I last reviewed Fishbar in September of 2011, when they had just finished transforming the place from its previous incarnation as Baja Sharkey’s. Back then I was impressed with their execution of a menu that focused mainly on back-to-basics seafood, but featured whimsical specials from Executive Chef Jessica Jordan. Since Jordan was noted for restless innovation at her previous posts, I suspected that those offerings might be a work in progress, to become more baroque as time passed.

The open prep area at Fishbar lets customers see some of the care that is taken in assembling each dish. Photo by Ralph Doyle

I was wrong. A dozen years later, it’s recognizably the same menu, the prices a bit higher but in line with general inflation. They’ve added a seafood tower, Peruvian scallops, and some other trendy items, but the star items are still salmon or clam chowders, seafood from the mesquite grill or fryer, and solidly executed sides.

On recent visits we sampled a mix of new items and old favorites, and verified that the chowders are as luscious as ever. We were even happier with a new item, fried calamari tossed with shredded bacon in a smoky, spicy chipotle sauce. The bacon was used judiciously so that its applewood aroma and richness amplified the similar notes in the sauce rather than taking over, and it was altogether successful. You’ll want to eat it quickly while the calamari is still crisp, but you’ll do that anyway because it’s really good.

The lobster guacamole at Fishbar is a popular taco Tuesday starter. Photo by Richard Foss

One of our visits happened to be on a taco Tuesday, when lobster guacamole is available. I’ve had lobster tacos with guacamole before, but somehow didn’t notice how well these two rich items work together as a duo. It’s a luxurious twist on a standard item, and well worth getting. I also ordered a pair of fish tacos, which were very well made but modestly proportioned and alone on the plate. The menu said these were served with brown rice, but mine was apparently forgotten. Had it been included, this would have been more satisfying.

Among the mains at dinner, we tried fish and chips, mesquite grilled mahi mahi, and an item I don’t remember seeing before, described as seared ahi tuna over mashed potatoes in a ginger-soy sauce. There was more to this dish than described, as mushrooms, snow peas, and a sprinkling of greens added variety and textures to a dish with many layered flavors. It was the highlight of our two meals there, and something I’ll order again.

The grilled mahi mahi at Fishbar is one of their classic favorites.

The fish and chips and grilled mahi were classics well-executed and with good but not excessive portions. A note for those who do not love paprika: unless you request that they leave it off, they dust their grilled seafood with a fairly generous coating. I happen to think that’s just fine, but my wife doesn’t, and she is looking over my shoulder and reading this warning approvingly as I type it. I chose a loaded baked potato and garlic spinach as sides, and particularly enjoyed the lightly cooked greens with a warm herbal tang.

The grilld ahi and fish sandwiches sandwiches were also fine, the crispy fish so generously portioned that you had to either squash it down a bit or do an impression of a snake swallowing something slightly larger than its own diameter. Both were served with very crisp fries, so many that we left some on the plate.

Fishbar takes the bar half of their name seriously, with a well curated wine by the glass, beer, and cocktail selection. Among the latter I recommend the Porto, their boozy but balanced version of a mai tai, the “Ginny Hendrix” made with gin, juice, and sparkling wine, and Feeling Al-rye-ght, an updated version of a Colonial Amerian rum shrub. Their mixed drinks are well-made and reasonably priced, which has made this a popular destination for mixology fans.

A note on the environment – there are screens everywhere showing different sports, all with the volume off, which some people enjoy and others find distracting. The volume level is moderate, though relatively high near the door, and if you prefer a quieter table, you should request a seat near the back of the room. The service has generally been fast and friendly, and most servers know the menu well and are responsive when questions of food allergies pop up.

In general, Fishbar is still the buzzy classic seafood house it was originally conceived as, though the creative side shows up at occasional wine dinners. This building was a mainstay of El Porto’s dining scene fifty years ago when it was The Pelican, and it fills the same niche now, a generation or two down the line.

 

Fishbar is at 3801Highland Avenue in Manhattan Beach. Open Mo-Th 11 a.m. – 9 p.m., Fr11 a.m – 10:30 p.m., Sa 10 a.m. – 10:30 p.m., Su 10 a.m. – 9 p.m, steet parking or structure adjacent. Full bar, wheelchair access OK, reservations accepted. Phone 310-796-0200, menu at fisharmb.com.

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