Restaurant review: Penn Avenue Fish Company offers stellar seafood and knowledgeable service

If you had told me before I moved to Pittsburgh that one of my favorite restaurants would be in a fish market, I would have thought you were crazy.

Who would want to slurp oysters and graze on sushi surrounded by fishmongers in orange overalls as they fillet fish to order?

Penn Avenue Fish Company
2208 Penn Ave.
Strip District

  • Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays; 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays.
  • Basics: Penn Avenue Fish Company is a bustling place with knowledgeable employees serving fresh seafood and oportunities for great people watching.
  • Dishes: Fish sandwiches $7.99-$9.99; deep sea chic $5.99 to $12.99; oysters $2 each; soups market price; sashimi and nigiri $3 to $4 per piece; maki and hand rolls $2.99 to $5.50; maki combinations $6.75 to $22.99; sushi platters $9.50 to $45.99; specialty rolls $6.99 to $12.50.
  • Prices: English-style cod sandwich, lobster roll, fish tacos, crab salad, oysters, calamari, octopus ceviche, sea scallops, shrimp and grits.
  • Summary: Street parking, BYOB, no reservations, credit cards.

Yet Penn Avenue Fish Company in the Strip District has become just that even as it expands the flagship location and hours.

The market-restaurant is now open until 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, closing two hours earlier on those days than the Downtown location on Forbes Avenue, which recently secured a liquor license.

The expanded dining room officially opened in June after taking over 2210 Penn Ave. next door. With high-ceilings and a fluid space, it's painted in browns and blues. Despite that the place will remain BYOB, the room includes a bar that's slated to become the new location for the sushi bar within the next few months. There's also a terrific sound system, although it's not too loud as to be intrusive.

Aside from the music, the scene can be kind of rock 'n' roll. Whether it's because of the tattooed staff or the bustle of one of the busiest markets on Penn Avenue, there's a sense that this is where the action is.

As the place plays out its ambitions, Penn Avenue Fish Co. sticks to its mission as a fish market first, a restaurant second. And it's a primary reason why I like it: The focus is on product.

While some species are taxed by overfishing or pollution and more than 90 percent of the fish Americans eat comes from abroad, it's reassuring to buy from proprietors who really know fish.

Enter Henry Dewey, co-owner with Angela Earley since the place opened in 2007. With an eight-year start on the retail end at the now-closed Benkovitz Seafoods, also in the Strip, Mr. Dewey has spent years building his knowledge and relationships with sources.

He has also recruited an experienced team. They include longtime employees Tim Reynolds and Kyle Houghtelin as well as Mark Clowney who came to the shop last year with experience as a Whole Foods fishmonger.

Dining doesn't need to be didactic, but the opportunity to learn is another reason I like the place. Mr. Reynolds, for example, taught me how to tell the difference between farmed and fresh fish during king salmon season.

"When you're filleting a king salmon and the light is right, you can see the oils poppin' off," he said. A higher concentration of oil can mean increased health benefits from omega-3 for cardiovascular health.

Wild fish also look healthier. From the same part of two salmon, spindly bones are from a farmed fish and thicker, whiter ones are from a wild fish.

His passing along this information makes me less wary about eating fish in a restaurant. According to the advocacy group Oceana, fish fraud in restaurants is at an all-time high, with 30 to 70 percent of fish mislabeled.

Lunch and dinner features simple preparations with an occasional dish laden with several sauces or multiple ingredients.

Each night the $30 dinner specials include a choice of fish, a sauce or vinaigrette, and a side. Dinners are possible with the hiring of Patrick McFarlane, formerly of now-closed Alchemy N'Ale and Steelhead Grill, where he worked with Mr. Dewey. Lately, the in-season wild king salmon is especially popular because it's so rich and flavorful. Order it without a sauce.

The more casual lunch menu is also available during dinner hours, which makes for a less expensive alternative. I'm a fan of the crab tacos ($8.99 for two, $11.99 for three) stacked with meat, dressed with tomatoes and slaw on a soft corn tortilla. Identically dressed, tuna tacos are aggressively seasoned, served with a side of remoulade.

Order oysters in the cooler months. Sweet, briny with plenty of liquor, Wellfleets, Delaware Bays and Bluepoints ($2 or $3 a piece) are served on ice with a lemon and mignonette. With the variety and brisk sales, the oysters are super fresh.

If there's a lobster sandwich ($15.99) on the menu, be sure to order it. Claw meat served on brioche is dressed with mayonnaise, tarragon, scallions and parsley. It diverges from a more traditional meat-only lobster roll, but it's quite good.

Other sandwiches are formidable and often satiating, with slabs of your choice of cod, tilapia, tuna or salmon with cheeses, sauces, slaws or tomatoes. The Sneaky Pete ($9.99) is the best-seller, a grilled salmon with arugula, hearts of palm and avocado creme.

Sushi presents simple and fresh, made by Pana Sin, who has been working for the company since it opened. I'm always an advocate of sashimi and nigiri over the more festive party rolls and maki, particularly at a place such as this fish market. Ask Mr. Sin for recommendations -- I tend to think conversations with staff leads to better dining experiences -- or consult the special board on the wall behind him.

Penn Avenue Fish Company isn't for everyone, especially those who don't care for a busy dining room within a market or the scent of fish, however faint.

Which brings me to the stars. Two and a half stars is a solid rating. Stellar seafood and skilled, personable fishmongers warrant high accolades. Yet hyper-casual counter service and a system that's occasionally confusing can make for a bumpy ride at the tables. This will likely change as the restaurant grows into the new space.

In the meantime, at the expanded Penn Avenue Fish Company in the Strip, you will not regret your decision to roll with it.

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.


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