Probably because of summer vacations spent with my family on the beaches of South Carolina, I most often crave fish when the weather gets warm. If you're under 30, you likely never lived in a place where fresh fish wasn't available. But in the Dark Ages of my youth, the only fish you commonly found inland was frozen or turned into the grade-school-cafeteria torture called "fish sticks." Thus, except for trips to the beach, when my father went to the docks regularly to buy flounder or shrimp for grilling, I refused to eat fish.
Things have certainly changed. Now, of course, fresh fish is available nearly everywhere -- to the extent that there is a global fishing crisis that isn't being offset by aquaculture. Over a million high-tech ships now steam about the world's seas, often reducing annual populations of some species by as much as 90 percent. At current fishing levels, Chilean sea bass will be extinct in five years and responsible restaurateurs, like Eric Ripert of Manhattan's Le Bernadin, have taken it off their menus. Efforts to regulate fishing are routinely sabotaged by racketeers who have turned poaching into an enormous enterprise -- a virtual mafia that executed by arson the commander of the Russian border guards a few weeks ago.
So, when you sit down to a meal of seafood, be aware that unless you are eating farm-raised fish, you are dining on one of the last wild animals that is legal to hunt with very few restrictions. And, knowing that, consider whether the restaurant is treating the fish with the respect it deserves.
If you want state-of-the art fish dishes, get yourself to Fishbone Piranha Bar (1874 Peachtree Road, 404-367-4772). When this restaurant opened three or four years ago, I found it so unpleasant, I chose not to write about it. It seemed little better than one of the old Rio Vista catfish joints with vastly inflated prices. In the last year, however, the restaurant has turned into Atlanta's best seafood destination, thanks to the genius of Chef Richard Blais, whose resume includes stints at the well-known Restaurant Daniel and the French Laundry.
The interior of the restaurant still reflects the original seafood-shack intention. There's a big chalkboard listing available fish -- mainly for decoration, according to our server, since it includes very little not on the menu. The ceiling is decorated with sailcloth. Blue-and-yellow stained glass windows illuminate the dining room during daylight hours and there's the inevitable and enormous aquarium with gigantic fish that swim surreally about, looking like animated silver sculptures.
It's not bad at all, but it certainly isn't as cool as Blais's cuisine. The chef uses deep plates and bowls to hold juices and broths that, married to the fish and other ingredients, produce surprising effects. Middleneck clams, each one perfect, are steamed in sherry de Jerez that's infused with elephant garlic, butter and parsley ($8). The salty, complex broth demands that you turn two pieces of toasted bread into croutons. I've long recognized that the best food opens my memory and the bowl caused me to bore Wayne with my recollections of the trip I made as a freshman at William and Mary to Virginia Beach, where I ordered an amazing bowl of clams from a waitress who seduced me -- and then invited her boyfriend into the room.
Wayne cleared his throat. "Well, my appetizer's real good too," he said.
Indeed. The carpaccio of salmon ($7), its flavor turned up by light smoking, was garnished with salty capers, crunchy asparagus and rich quail eggs, hard-boiled and halved.
My entree, halibut ($18), was one of the best dishes I've eaten in weeks. This reef-dwelling fish, odd for having both eyes on one side of its head, is notoriously difficult to cook because, lacking much oil, it dries quickly. That and its very light flavor make it ideal for sauces or combining with oilier textures. Thus Blais quickly sears the fish and serves it over lasagna noodles stuffed with a creamy blend of artichokes and clams. Chardonnay and white truffle oil season the dish.
Wayne ordered one of the restaurant's most popular dishes -- swordfish ($18). The meaty fish can hold its own with some powerful ingredients. Blais iron-sears it and serves it over potatoes with a mild chorizo, peppers, clams, pine nuts and raisins. The sweet and spicy notes play nicely against one another.
There is much else to explore on the menu here, including crispy-skinned trout under a "deconstructed" bearnaise sauce and a dessert made with slow-roasted beets.
Yuppies and Mexicans
If Fishbone is state of the art, Fontaine's Oyster House (1026 1/2 N. Highland Ave., 404-872-0869) is Captain D's for yuppies. The vaguely Cajun restaurant packs in crowds with an inexpensive menu that ranges from $9 sandwiches to $30 platters of fried, steamed or boiled seafood for two.
I could not bring myself to order any of the specialty oysters baked in the half-shell with cheeses, so we ordered a dozen of the raw oysters ($8). Granted, this is not the best time of year for oysters, but the ones brought to our table were utterly tasteless. Only a powerful shot of horseradish made them palatable. Much better was a starter of two juicy soft-shell crabs, nicely flash-fried and served over salad drizzled with remoulade ($8.95).
Wayne ordered the "Hook of the Day" -- a miserably overcooked piece of thin tuna situated on way too much sauced fettuccine ($12.95). The dish was garnished with the mushiest asparagus I've encountered outside a can. Better by far, but no better than mediocre, was my order of fried sea scallops ($11.95). It was a very generous serving but many of the scallops had the texture of a soft potato. A rough-cut Cole slaw was tasty enough, but the red beans and rice were slap-dash. Spend a few dollars more and go to Fishbone.
On the other hand, if you're looking for an outre experience, head to El Colorado Marisqueria (2800 N.E. Expressway, 404-929-0382). You can see the neon restaurant sign from the Shallowford southbound access road, but it doesn't prepare you for what you find when you get there.
Mexico, basically. The restaurant is located between a Mexican pool hall and a video rental store, over a Mexican grocery and laundromat. You won't hear a word of English from the hundred or so men you see hanging out in the street and in the pool hall. Nor will your waitress speak English.
Apparently, the place is open very late because signs by the televisions announced the 2 a.m. broadcast of the Mexico-Croatia soccer match. Green walls, papier-mache parrots and a modern candlelit retablo of Our Lady of Guadalupe decorate the place.
Besides "mariscos" (seafood), you'll find the usual sandwiches, burritos, tacos and quesadillas here. But we both ordered "cocteles" -- big lime-rimmed goblets of seafood in a tomato broth, almost seafood gazpachos with avocado added. Cocteles, perfect summertime fare, tend to be sweet but El Colorado's were less so. In any case, you can battle the sweetness with the lime.
Wayne ordered the campechana ($8.49) with shrimp and squid. Mine, the vuelva a la vida ("return to life"), included the same with oysters added ($12.49). I suggest you not bother paying extra, since the oysters tasted canned to me. You'll also find fried fish and various traditional shrimp dishes.
Be sure to visit the video store on the way out and check the counter of used obscene comic books, which prompted us to rechristen the coctel I'd just eaten "Return to Vulva."
Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at email@example.com.