Richard Foss

Pushing the boundaries [restaurant review]

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Pier 76 Fish Grill expands on the fish house concept

Pier 76 Fish Grill manager Sarai Melchor and host Sylvia Perez at the oyster bar. Photo by Kevin Cody.

Years ago I worked with someone who spent much time thinking about numbers. He was a tour organizer rather than an accountant, and he believed that combinations of digits had a psychological connection. He priced his excursions based on this theory, which drove management crazy because profits were always slightly off from their projections.

The new Pier 76 Fish Grill on Rosecrans at least has some logic behind its name, because both founders were born in that year. Their first restaurant debuted in Long Beach in 2014, and the one that recently opened at Apollo Landing is the fifth.

This might not seem like news, because lots of fast casual fish houses have opened with the same pattern: choose your fish, then customize it with your preferred cooking method and sides. Pay at the counter, take your number, and make a trip to the soda machine if you ordered one. It’s not particularly creative, but it turns out quick, relatively inexpensive, and tasty basic seafood meals.

Pier 76 pushes the concept significantly with an oyster bar and a wider than usual variety of fish, which is paired with modern sides instead of seafood shack favorites. Salads include shaved broccoli and arugula with sunflower seeds and candied pecans, and quinoa and hemp seed hummus show up among the sides. The fish itself is offered “Pier Style” with conventional sides; “Mojo Style” with beans, rice, and corn; “Hipster Style” with a grain salad and hemp seed hummus, or on top of a bowl of gumbo. It calls for fast decision making as you stand at the counter, and we would have felt bad about holding up the line as we dithered except that the people behind us were having the same problem.

Unlike most quickserve places you can request your appetizers to be delivered before your meal, which we did. We chose the kale and butternut squash salad, clam chowder, and what were described as “sticky green beans” in a soy sauce with crispy shallots. The green beans were in a tangy sweetened garlic soy sauce that was a good combination with the shallots, but they arrived barely warm rather than hot. When I called this to a manager’s attention, she had them fire another batch, and when hot they were quite enjoyable. We liked the mildly peppery chowder too, but the best of the three was the kale and squash salad. The squash was finely cut instead of left in large chunks so the sweet flavor was well integrated with the slightly bitter flavor of the kale. This salad can be ordered with grilled fish on top of it, and I suspect that the contrast of rich seafood with nutty, bitter, and sweet flavors would be a winner.

My companions ordered trout “hipster style” and fish and chips, which is the only fried seafood on the menu, and I considered ordering the gumbo but eventually decided on red snapper “pier style.” (I was offered a taste of the gumbo and found it to have a nice mild spice kick, but I was in a mood to enjoy simple seafood flavors.) I got what I wanted: a good portion of moist fish with mild seasoning and some char flavor from the grill, served with my chosen sides of crisp fries and lightly grilled zucchini. This is the type of meal that most people have in mind when they come to a casual fish grill, and Pier 76 delivered the goods.

The fish and chips was made with wild cod, not the choice for most restaurants because it’s much more expensive than fish that have a more bland flavor and mushy texture. The beer batter on the fish was crisp, and this was one of the better renditions of the British classic that I’ve had in the South Bay. There are plenty of places that charge much more and deliver much less. The broccoli slaw that arrived with it was an upgrade from the usual coleslaw but filled the same gastronomical niche, something crisp, tart, and complex to balance the other items on the plate.

Things faltered slightly with the trout plate, partly because the mild fish needed a bit more seasoning, and this wasn’t helped by the very bland hempseed hummus. This was the first hemp seed hummus I have tried, so I don’t know whether it’s that the richer flavor of garbanzo is a better foil for the garlic, oil, and herbs, but it didn’t work for me. Whatever the reason, the beet salad and warm ancient grain mix were the most attractive items on the plate.

Pier 76 Fish Grill offers a few wines that are suited to seafood and several craft beers at moderate prices, particularly during their happy hour from 3 to 6 PM. That wasn’t when we visited, but there are enough attractive items on that menu that you could construct a full meal of appetizers and accompany it with a beverage for less than fifteen bucks. Our repast was a bit more expensive at just over thirty bucks a person, but we had over-ordered on the starters and took several to-go boxes home.

There was obviously life in the fish grill concept even before Pier 76 came along, but their take on the idea shows that you can productively innovate around the edges while remaining true to the idea. It’s a success, and a worthwhile stop even if you don’t work in the area.

Pier 76 Fish Grill is at 2101 Rosecrans Avenue in El Segundo. Open daily at 10:30 a.m., closes 9 p.m. Su-Thu, 10 p.m. Fr-Sa. Parking lot, wheelchair access good, sound level moderate, 40 Db. Phone 310-616-3178, menu at pier76fishgrill.com. ER

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