At the Original Penn Avenue Fish Company in the Strip District, orange-clad fish mongers handle 50-pound fish parts with ease. Retail seafood got a local boost in 2007 when Henry Dewey and Angela Earley joined forces to open the boutique fish shop and casual restaurant. Penn Avenue Fish Company quickly established itself both as one of the premier fish counters in the area and as one of the Strip District's most delicious lunch spots, drawing crowds for the sushi, fish tacos and other seafood along with the fresh filets of salmon and trout.
At the relatively new Downtown location, a long, narrow storefront on Forbes Avenue, there's no retail fish counter. Instead, the emphasis is on prepared food, with a substantial lunch and a more refined dinner menu. The owners started with lunch (be prepared for a line out the door around 12:30) and now serve dinner Wednesday through Saturday.
308 Forbes Ave.
- Hours: Lunch, Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; dinner, Wednesday-Saturday, 6-10 p.m.; Saturday, 5-10 p.m.
- Basics: : A casual lunch spot by day, Penn Avenue Fish Company metamorphosizes into a real restaurant after dark, with a daily changing, diverse menu of fish and seafood, including freshly prepared sushi.
- Recommended dishes: Octopus nigiri, lobster risotto, tuna nachos, Chilean seabass with curried peas and potatoes, king salmon with truffled risotto cake, coriander crusted scallops, s'mores ice cream, peanut butter bread pudding.
- Prices: Sushi: Sashimi and nigiri, $4-5; rolls, $5-13; plates, $9-35; appetizers, $7-9; entrees, $22-33; desserts, $9.
- Summary: Wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted; reservations encouraged; BYOB, no corkage.
- Noise level: Loud.
With only 35 seats, it's an intimate restaurant, but one with a large presence. Cobalt blue tables and whimsical tilework evoke the ocean, the nautical feel enhanced by galley lighting, while exposed brick and lime-green walls keep it from feeling like a theme restaurant. Ms. Earley runs the front of house with charm and style, making walk-ins feel welcome despite a perpetually cramped reservation book.
The kitchen is practically a one-man show -- especially for those seated at the kitchen-side bar. Except for the sushi, chef Eric Earnest prepares every dish from the smoked trout and arugula salad to the blueberry cheesecake ice cream, all the while finding moments to chat or answer questions.
His resume includes years at Big Burrito restaurants Casbah and Kaya, Luma in Aspinwall, and two years as executive chef at the now-closed Red Room Cafe in East Liberty. At Penn Avenue he crafts a daily menu, totally focused on fish and seafood and full of verve and versatility.
Simple starters such as soup or salad piqued the appetite, hinting at bolder, more complex dishes to come. Asiago sharpened the rich flavor of a seafood bisque, while sea bass lent a mild oceanic note to a black bean and corn chowder. A generous pile of dark green, baby arugula was laced with chunks of almost chewy smoked trout, the wood-smoke's bite pleasantly sharp against the sweetness of sun-dried tomato and a spicy honey-mustard vinaigrette ($9).
Saffron risotto, just enough to savor, was neither too soft nor too stiff. Chunks of lobster, mushrooms and sweet green peas hinted at spring ($10).
Tuna nachos were classic critic bait, bizarre in name but delicious in practice ($9). Crisp corn tortilla chips were layered with gently cooked tuna, a drizzle of spicy-sweet chile sauce and lots of traditional taco fixings, including jalapenos, black olives, chopped tomatoes, cheddar cheese and crispy bits of bacon. Each bite was the perfect balance of salty, savory and sweet. The tuna, a fish famous for its rich, meaty flavor, was simply playing the role of pulled pork or ground beef.
There's a full array of sushi, prepared by chef Pana Sin and encompassing both traditional and creative flavors. Thinly sliced octopus, remarkably tender, are nestled against loose blocks of rice ($5 for two nigiri). The Spicy Senorita lived up to its name, yellowtail flavored with cilantro, raw chopped jalapenos and a dollop of sriracha ($9). Impressively, the peppers didn't overpower the fish, the heat coming on slowly, if powerfully.
Nigiri and rolls make excellent shared appetizers, but there are also a number of full-meal options for those so inclined, including a sushi dinner ($18), a chirashi dinner (sashimi arranged on seasoned rice, $20) and a deluxe sushi combo selected by the sushi chef ($35).
Returning to the main stage (at Penn Avenue, appetizers are "openings," entrees "main stage"), one finds a relatively short list of options that demonstrates an impressive range of flavors.
Coriander-crusted scallops were an opulent garnish for rice and beans, specifically black-eyed peas, the messy pile layered with corn, spinach and a rich mole that hinted at roasted peanuts and chiles ($26).
Lavish was a word that often came to mind. Large slabs of barramundi were served atop goat cheese potato pancakes, dressed up not with sour cream or apple sauce, but instead with caramelized shallot and pear puree ($26). Wild striped bass was blanketed in a roasted garlic cream sauce and came with crisp-sauteed broccoli tossed with melted butter and sliced almonds ($25). In another preparation, scallops came atop creamy lobster mashed potatoes ($28).
In general, dishes were more distinguished in their flavor than in their presentations. But a few balanced both, like Chilean seabass with hints of India. The sweet and buttery fish was nestled in a silken cauliflower puree, ringed by neat piles of green peas and potatoes in a mild yellow curry ($27). The proportions were balanced, the textures just right.
Chilean Seabass, in general, is considered overfished, but Penn Avenue owner Henry Dewey sources his from a Georgia fishery where the population is well managed and the methods environmentally sound, and the fish has been certified by the Marine Stewardship Council.
Especially for a lone chef, Mr. Earnest does an incredible job, but the pressure of a full restaurant occasionally showed up on the plates. The potato and goat cheese pancakes, while delicious, never got quite crispy at the edges. Fried shallots that garnished the smoked trout and arugula salad were too heavily battered, leaving them leaden and dry.
A tremendous piece of King salmon was thoughtfully paired with a truffled risotto cake, crisp and aromatic, pencil-thin asparagus roasted just until tender and a classic red wine butter sauce. Unfortunately, the sauce had broken a bit at the edges, probably helped along by a too-hot plate ($32).
An assistant or two may be in order, especially as this restaurant is likely to get even busier as word spreads and the weather warms.
For now, there's little to quibble over. Even desserts were unusually tasty for a restaurant without a pastry chef. Small but decadent concoctions included a riff on s'mores, chocolate ice cream on a bed of graham cracker crumbs topped with a warm ooze of marshmallow fluff and caramelized banana slices. Brioche bread pudding laced with Reese's peanut butter cups was further adorned with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a generous drizzle of hard sauce, a la banana's foster ($9).
Downtown Pittsburgh may not yet draw large crowds after dark, but if you're looking for a small one, just check the fish market.