Dining Review: Original Fish Market needs to right the ship on taste and design
Executive sous chef Sean Davies and executive chef Carl Rynecki of the Original Fish Market at the Westin Convention Center, Downtown.
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The Original Fish Market is a Pittsburgh landmark, and in recent years it has enjoyed a solid, if not glittering, reputation under the leadership of chef Brian Annapolen. But chef Annapolen departed earlier this year, and for several months the restaurant floundered. The newcomer, chef Carl Rynecki, has a lot of experience, but his influence on the menu has been less intensive than one might have hoped.
As the name suggests, the restaurant promises to provide a selection of highest quality fish and seafood, which changes daily, and it continues to deliver on that promise. Nigiri of mackerel, razor clam, octopus and cooked halibut, swordfish, sea scallops, and oysters were all fresh, flavorful and properly prepared. But rather than allowing the seafood to do the work, dishes seem designed to conceal, rather than showcase, high quality products.
Seared Alaskan halibut with black mission figs, sweet potato puree and strips of prosciutto ($27) was pleasantly seasonal, but the accompaniments did not pair well with the fish, which would have benefited more from additional acidity than the dose of intense sweetness from the figs and sweet potatoes.
1 1/2 stars = Good+
- Hours: Monday-Friday 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Saturday-Sunday 4 p.m. to 1 a.m.
- Basics: A wide variety of fresh, quality seafood, but the restaurant suffers from poorly thought-out preparations, a confused variety of offerings, and a dreary, almost Disneyesque dining room.
- Recommended dishes: Balsamic chile baby shrimp, escargot bourguignonne, cream of blue crab and sweet corn soup, crab cakes, lamb osso buco, sea scallops, oysters.
- Prices: Starters, $5-$14; entrees, $17-$75; sides, $4-$7; desserts, $6-$9; wine by the glass starts at $7, by the bottle $28.
- Summary: Wheelchair-accessible; parking validated with a minimum purchase of $50 per person; credit cards accepted; reservations recommended; corkage $15.
- Noise level: Quiet to medium-loud.
A dish of braised beef short ribs and seared diver scallops with parsnip and smoked cheddar agnolotti and, purportedly, aromatic jus ($28) was confused. Nothing tied the short ribs and scallops together, and the smoked cheddar in the agnolotti (a type of ravioli that can be exceptional, but in this case was a little leaden) totally overwhelmed the other components of the dish.
Both of these dishes, as well as a number of others, also were served well below the desirable temperature for hot food.
To be fair, an entire section of the menu focuses on more straightforward seafood preparations, a la carte. But this section is buried in the corner of the menu, isn't very user-friendly and isn't emphasized by servers. Given the number of possible preparations (six) and the number of protein options (11), servers should be comfortable giving plenty of recommendations for each style of preparation or fish, but servers seemed hesitant to make more than one or two suggestions, as if they were as perplexed by the ridiculous number of options as we were.
The combination of wild sea scallops with spicy Thai green curry ($31) was a study in white and green. Large, plentiful, sweet sea scallops were covered in a green curry sauce made with broth, rather than the anticipated coconut milk, and served with rice and steamed spinach flavored with a little salt and sliced garlic. The curry added almost no discernible heat, and the dish itself lacked flavor.
One of the simpler seafood entrees, chile roasted swordfish loin ($26), suffered from a similar lack of flavor, though here the dish was at least colorful. A carrot ginger puree turned out to be a watery, orange sauce with no distinct taste of carrot or ginger. Baby bok choy was served with the core intact, which made eating it difficult, and the spicy shrimp that accompanied the swordfish were overcooked and dry. The swordfish itself was tasty, but lukewarm.
There were many bright spots, but some were a little perplexing in their own right. Balsamic chile baby shrimp ($10) were delicious, and the serving was quite generous, but this sticky-sweet dish belongs on a bar menu, if it belongs anywhere in a purportedly fine dining restaurant.
A more refined dish, escargot bourguignonne ($12), was a pleasantly unusual offering, and because it is basically garlic bread stuffed with sauteed onions, tomatoes, mushrooms, thinly sliced garlic and some snails, it's a great introduction to someone who might be nervous about trying this type of dish.
Cream of blue crab and sweet corn soup had tons of great crab flavor ($5), and an order of scrumptious blue point oysters (four for $12) was beautifully presented. An order of nigiri came with rice so sour I wanted to scrape it off the seafood, but the mackerel and octopus tasted exactly as it should, and I was thrilled to see hard-to-find razor clams on the menu and even more thrilled with their quality. Next time, I'll go with sashimi.
The crab cakes ($38) are very good and the fried green tomatoes that came with them were the highlight of the meal, though creamier and more assertively seasoned "creamed corn" would have made this dish even better.
Chef Rynecki has chosen to add more meat and pasta specials, and the best dish I tried was Lamb "Osso Buco" ($25), a superbly tender braised lamb shank served with perfectly cooked white beans jazzed up with pancetta and a wonderfully earthy rosemary-lamb sauce.
Desserts have substantially improved, with an emphasis on seasonal offerings such as an apple trio ($8) of warm apple cake, apple cider sorbet and an adorable tiny poached apple; and an upside down fig cake with vanilla ice cream that had almost a muffin-like texture.
Of course, as a hotel restaurant, and the primary restaurant associated with the Convention Center, the Original Fish Market has a built-in audience. That's fortunate for the restaurant, but not always fortunate for other diners.
One evening, a guest, who was presumably staying in the hotel, walked through the dining room barefoot. They may not have a dress code, but surely there's an implicit "no shoes, no shirt" policy in place? Perhaps not.
It would be difficult for staff to enforce a dress code, given how badly the restaurant itself needs a makeover. The entire dining room is faded and dreary, and it's difficult to decide what is uglier: the giant white objects, vaguely bowl-shaped, covered in primary-colored geometric doo-dads and suspended beneath track lighting; or the seaweed inspired curtains decorated with plastic squid and other sea creatures.
Service is quite professional, and as long as you communicate your limits, you won't have to worry about making it to the theater on time. Servers are able to make reasonable but not terribly interesting suggestions from a slightly disorganized but nicely varied wine list.
The Original Fish Market should be commended for making it to its 10th anniversary, no easy task for any restaurant. But good fish is no longer so hard to find in the Pittsburgh market, and if the restaurant wants to make it to its 20th anniversary, I suspect that a more significant financial and creative reinvestment will be necessary.
First Published October 30, 2008 12:00 am