A large martini glass is filled with a seafood slaw made with shredded napa cabbage, jumbo lump crab, lobster meat, chopped shrimp, avocado and hearts of palm tossed in a tart kimchee dressing and topped with two enormous and succulent shrimp. Red, my dining companion, loves the dish, which is understatedly listed on the menu as "martini," but she can't finish more than half of it. The portions at Pesce, simply put, are too large for her.
Pes-KAY? PESH-ee? How do you pronounce it? The valet supplies the answer on our way in. "Welcome to PESH-shay," he says.
Pesce's dining room is smartly appointed with banquettes and upholstered chairs. The room is large and open, even a little cavernous. A giant saltwater aquarium behind the hostess stand separates the waiting area from the dining room. The crowd is lively; their conversations and the rattling of silverware generate a noise level that's plesantly festive (without becoming a din). Some dress in blue jeans and others in natty evening wear; everybody seems to be having a good time.
The kitchen is open, with the dessert chef stationed at the forefront, making the sweets while you watch. Whole fish are displayed in a glass case; there's a giant monkfish in there that looks like a sea monster. Since I previously explored the bar at Pesce (see Stirred and Shaken, November 23, 2000), we turn our attentions elsewhere while juggling the oversized menus. I find the simple names refreshing -- "crab cake" "whole roasted Pesce" "grilled Pesce" and "whole Maine lobster." Red, on the other hand, finds these boring. The waiter fills in the blanks; tonight's roasted fish, for instance, is a whole red snapper for two.
The wine list is mostly chardonnays and sauvignon blancs. I'm sick of the former, and Red thinks she doesn't like the latter. "That's just because you didn't like the last cheap bottle I bought," I tell her. So we decide to experiment: There's a decent bottle of Pouilly-Fumé on the list. This Loire Valley sauvignon blanc is generally considered the standard by which the varietal is measured. If she doesn't like this one, she doesn't like sauvignon blanc. At first when the bottle is opened, she finds it too acidic and too thin. But after her "martini" is delivered, she changes her mind. It may not be your idea of a sipping wine, but with fish, shellfish and cream sauces, the high acidity of Pouilly-Fumé is spectacular.
Blessed with a large appetite, I help Red finish her incredibly rich and addictively tasty appetizer. Which leaves me the challenge of eating the daily special, a starter called "a study in tuna," all by myself. The study includes three tuna preparations on the same plate: a thin slice of carpaccio topped with a bright red tuna tartare; rectangular slices of flash-cooked Japanese spicy tuna served on a delectable seaweed salad with a garnish of green roe; and a creamy mousse of intense smoked tuna layered with crispy yucca chips and topped with a dollop of American sturgeon caviar. Each pile of fish is more enticing than the next, but it's an awful lot of tuna.
The combination of green roe and Japanese spicy tuna is perhaps the most brilliant pairing on the plate. The roe is obviously colored and flavored with wasabi. There are several companies that make such flavored roes. The Collins Caviar Co. in Chicago starts with American whitefish roe, while Japanese companies color and flavor tobiko, flying fish roe, with various natural food flavors. I ask the waiter, a young man with bleached-blond two-toned hair, what kind of roe this is.
"It's American sturgeon caviar," he says. He's wrong, of course. There is some American sturgeon caviar on top of my tuna mousse. The eggs are grayish-black. They look like sevruga.
"Why is it green? Is it colored with something?" I persist.
"That's the natural color," he says.
I have been through this drill with one too many Houston waiters. While dining at Mark's American Cuisine one evening, I got the exact same answer when I asked about the purple tobiko. I figured it was colored with beets, but the waiter insisted purple was the natural hue of flying fish roe. Which is it, boys, green or purple? Lots of local restaurants spend big money on unique ingredients that their waiters have never heard of. And lots of waiters seem convinced that all the public wants is a good line of bullshit. If you're a food writer and you quote one of these jokers, you spread the manure along with them.
"Would you please go to the kitchen and find out what kind of roe this is?" I demand. The waiter comes back with the information.
"Sorry, I misspoke. It's flying fish roe colored with wasabi," he says.
I could probably finish the tuna plate, but I have an entrée coming, and even my enormous appetite appears to be waning. The menu describes crawfish Melinda as "fresh Louisiana crawfish tails, sautéed in a Creole Nantua sauce with shaved tasso over corn fettuccine." A few carefully constructed bites of the dish -- I twist the perfectly cooked pasta around the creamy crawfish tails and spear a slice of shaved ham -- send me into a moaning, eyes-closed ecstasy that Red finds positively embarrassing. Nantua is a classical French crawfish-flavored cream or béchamel sauce; tasso is a spiced cured ham common in Cajun cooking. The combination is heavenly.
But Red doesn't want to try any. She's barely touching her sesame-crusted yellowfin as it is. I take a few bites of her dinner. The tuna is cut into thick rectangles and cooked medium rare. The two chunks of fish are stacked over a crabmeat-and-lemon risotto with some tempura-fried stuffed squash blossoms on the side.
"It's just all too rich," Red protests.
"But it's so good," I argue.
"Yeah, but it's butter and cream, lobster and tuna," she says. "Crowd-pleasing stuff -- Steven Spielberg food."
Red is much more impressed by chefs who coax flavor from great ingredients without resorting to cream and butter. We try to think of an artsy independent film director to complete the metaphor, but none really fits the bill.
I can't finish my pasta, and neither one of us makes much of a dent in the yellowfin. But I am not ready to concede that the food at Pesce is too rich. Rich happens to be one of my favorite flavors.
On our second visit to Pesce, I am armed with a strategy. We invite another couple to join us so that we can order one of the restaurant's most popular appetizers: a two-tier tower brimming with cold seafood. The Pesce tower (available for four or six people) turns out to be stocked with stone crab claws, a small lobster tail, shrimp, raw oysters, raw cherrystone clams, steamed mussels and a pile of seviche. Rémoulade, cocktail sauce and an onion-and-vinegar sauce are served on the side. The raw bar items are excellent and much lighter than the sauced appetizers we had last time.
The couple joining us has just announced their engagement, and we want to toast the occasion. As it turns out, I find an interesting item on the wine menu: Roederer Estate, an exceptional sparkling wine from California, is probably the best deal on the list. If the crispness of a Loire Valley sauvignon blanc goes well with seafood, then the higher acidity of a sparkling wine should do even better. And besides, everybody loves bubbly.
This time, instead of ordering separate entrées, we elect to split two dinners four ways. We order the evening's whole roasted Pesce -- which turns out to be a Dover sole topped with crabmeat and served with roasted potatoes, carrots and asparagus -- as well as potato-crusted Alaskan halibut cheeks. I like the halibut best. The potato coating is crunchy, and the fish is served over a sort of bourbon-and-corn chowder.
We still have room for a slice of outrageously tall lemon meringue pie and a gooey hot brownie with ice cream, which we also split four ways. I feel victorious about my ordering concept. If you start off knowing that the food tends to be rich and the portions large, it's easy to scale things down, I contend. But Red is still not a convert.
It's a week later, and we're dining at Fung's Kitchen on the Southwest Freeway. A friend is visiting from Los Angeles. Her family emigrated from Hong Kong, and she is very enthusiastic about the menu here, so I've asked her to order. She points to the lingcod swimming in an aquarium beside our table and asks the waitress something in Cantonese.
"Whenever I see the fish swimming, I order it steamed," she tells us. It's a sound cooking philosophy: The freshest fish requires only the simplest preparation. The steamed lingcod is delivered to our table with nothing but a light soy-and-ginger sauce and a few cilantro sprigs. It is perfectly done, moist, tender and flaky. The subtle flavor is a meditation on the nature of the fish.
"This is what's wrong with Pesce," Red says, holding up a piece of the delicate white lingcod with her chopsticks. I know what she means.
Pesce is a crowd-pleasing restaurant, and there is nothing wrong with that. Just as there is nothing wrong with a Spielberg movie. Both feature a bold exuberance that tends to overwhelm the senses. As the box office will attest, this is what mainstream American taste is all about. And I love it. Sometimes.
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