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Sea and sand
Thursday, 30 June 2011
Photos by Wes Naman
Desert Fish shows that fresh seafood on menu trumps nautical decor on walls

By Logan Greely
Up until the opening of Desert Fish late last year, local seafood restaurants were designed to feel as if diners are actually next to the ocean — fake boardwalks, mooring lines and bollards, ponds, buoys, etc. Fun stuff, sure, but the fact is, we’re not anywhere near the ocean and most diners are very aware of that. Based off its name alone, one of Nob Hill’s newest culinary destinations is using its desert locale as its main selling point.

Smart move.

Fresh fish, oysters, clams, scallops, crab and mussels are certainly at their freshest when pulled from their underwater lair, cracked open and eaten on the spot. That obviously can’t happen in the high desert. But what diners should know is that five out of the six days a week that Desert Fish is seating, seafood is flown in and delivered to the kitchen. Sure, it’s not flopping around on your plate fresh, but it’s pretty fresh, and skillfully prepared at that.

The interior of the restaurant — a sort of ode to the Pacific Northwest — is all exposed blonde wood beams, sleek lines and huge windows letting in much more light than the building’s previous incarnation (the beloved dive, Sonny’s Bar & Grill). Since there is live music on weekend nights, a unique sliding door closes off the south dining room. A 15-foot tall totem pole is the central focus of the north dining room, which merges naturally with the full-service bar.

ImageMenu highlights are many. After numerous lunches and dinners here, this writer has tried nearly everything on the menu, but gravitates toward the following must-eat dishes:

1) Seafood Salad ($18): On almost any other seafood restaurant menu, this dish would be overlooked. Don’t make that mistake here. Executive chef Carrie Eagle’s version is a simply prepared smorgasbord of grilled seafood delights that includes scallops, prawns and (the best part) warm crab meat served on a cool bed of fresh greens.

2) Oysters ($2-$3/ea): Desert Fish has one of the biggest selection of fresh oysters in town. Though diners should check for availability before ordering, the menu always offers a good half dozen or more oyster varieties, which allow oyster lovers a spectrum of flavors to choose from. With such exotic, hard-to-remember names like Kusshi, Penn Cove, Kumamoto, et al., taking notes is not out of the question.

3) Cioppino ($22): Those who know a good cioppino (a fish stew that originated in San Francisco in the late 1800s) will likely order this dish with an air of suspicion. But just as Desert Fish delivers on quality preparations on many of their other dishes, this version is quite commendable. Aside from its earthy, peppery tomato flavor that clings to the palate, the vegetable mirepoix is spot on and elevated by thin, soft slices of garlic. A touch too much black pepper for my tastes (I would prefer red pepper flakes and a whisper of lemon zest), but nonetheless a great rendition of this classic dish.

Image4) Grilled Halibut ($28): Signature dishes and specialty preparations aside, a truly good measure of any seafood joint is how well it prepares a common seafood item. For most diners, grilled halibut is a less-than-beguiling menu item. On a purely textural level, it’s one that I personally hold in high regard. Additionally, I have grown tired of both grilled salmon and seared tuna anything, so when Desert Fish ditched their Alder smoked salmon and replaced it with grilled sturgeon ($26), my taste buds perked up (they do have a grilled sockeye salmon on the menu, $24). Served simply with polenta and topped with a romesco sauce, the sturgeon is one of my favorite local fish preparations. However, it takes a back seat to Eagle’s halibut, a lush and velvety affair marked by minimal seasoning, allowing the fish itself to take center stage. This is countered sharply with an endive and basil chiffonade and a savory orzo salad. Pretty much a perfect dish, coast or no coast.

There are many other draws to Desert Fish, including a proper Fish and Chips plate ($14) served with green chile hushpuppies; a whole dungeness crab entrée ($25); a linguini and clams dish ($20, a rarity in this town); and a diverse and ever-changing wine selection with plenty of obscure white wine labels. The vibe is just loose enough for Albuquerque (read: not at all pretentious) and there are non-fish entrees (that I will likely never try because I have to order fish here).

If you love fish, or even just seem to feel better when fish is on the menu, file Desert Fish under “must-try.” If you just want to see a picture of a breezy beach scene, that’s another story entirely.

Desert Fish
4214 Central SE, 505.266.5544
11a-11p, Tue.–Sun.; closed on Mon.

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