This Lambertville venture specializes in seafood in a renovated two-story warehouse. Visitors are greeted by a retail fish market. Appetizers include a raw fresh oyster bar; vegetables are à la carte and changed daily.
By: Pat Tanner
The Fish House
LAMBERTVILLE "Cool" was the one-word reaction of one of my dining companions to the décor of The Fish House, the new seafood restaurant in Lambertville. It is the latest venture of Jim Hamilton, owner of the very popular Hamilton’s Grill Room in the same town. Mr. Hamilton himself designed the highly attractive interior of the two-story space, which had once been a warehouse.
The entrance, in a courtyard off of Main Street, welcomes visitors with a pair of wide, arching glass and wood warehouse doors featuring period hand-wrought iron handles. Just inside is a retail fish market, which also stocks pastas, oils, vinegars and even potted plants. Old brick and vertical beaded paneling, the latter painted pea green, provide a touch of nostalgia, while hip modernity is provided by a two-story wall of water falling over stainless steel panels shaped to resemble fish scales.
Dinner at The Fish House, which opened three months ago, begins with a basket of good Italian breads, one plain and one irresistibly flecked with toasted onion. Tables at this bring-your-own-wine place come pre-set with good wine glasses, but these will be properly removed if you opt for the restaurant’s selection of soft drinks, sparkling or spring waters, and Honest ice teas.
Appetizers include a pan roast of the day ($6.75) and mussel scallion soup ($3.75). From a raw bar, which offers an ever-changing selection of oysters from the East Coast, West Coast and abroad, I let the shucker choose four different varieties. Oysters range per piece from $1.25 for a Virginia to $2.75 for a Belon. Unfortunately, the Belon put the others to shame with its (to my taste) perfect balance of salt and sea. A platter of smoked salmon on onion toasts with crème fraiche ($7) contained generous amounts of good salmon. The slightly tart crème fraiche was a lip-smacking accompaniment, but the toasts had crossed the line from crisp to burnt. Caesar salad ($6) was properly garlicky and well dressed. An additional $2 adds exactly one grilled shrimp, although it is jumbo and delicious.
I had been warned by several acquaintances that service at The Fish House was slow. Our party of four went relatively early on a Sunday night; the restaurant was half-full when we arrived and three-quarters full when we left two hours later, after a three-course meal that included refills on the excellent Green Mountain coffee. We encountered no noticeable lag or lapse, although the restaurant management does acknowledge that staff is still being trained and that during peak times patrons might encounter a bit of a wait.
In an unfortunate turn of events, the restaurant happened to be out of my three first choices for a main dish: seafood pot pie ($13), roasted cod with ginger glaze ($12) and the whole fish of the day. But out of the remaining choices, which included several specials, we picked four winners. Described on the menu only as "fisherman’s pasta," I imagined the $12 dish to be one of those shellfish-and-watery-tomato-sauce amalgams with way too much garlic. Instead, well-cooked penne pasta was coated with a thick, slightly sweet long-simmered tomato sauce that had deliciously absorbed the flavor of its component of scallops, clams, mussels and chunks of cod.
I opted for a special that for $20 included two small grilled steaks of salmon and monkfish over sage-scented risotto. The risotto, made with an assertive fish stock, was wonderful, and the monkfish lived up to its reputation as "poor man’s lobster," but the salmon was not as fresh tasting as it should have been. This was not a problem with the seared tuna sushi grade and rosy red in the center that came with a delicious cod cake ($17). Although the menu listed the sauce as "tomato broth," it was actually a thick, wine-flavored sauce and tasty at that.
Two very good crab cakes ($19) were accompanied by fennel tartar sauce and a mix of wild rice and quinoa, which a companion found tasty but dry.
Vegetables are a la carte, and a choice of two changes daily. A table’s worth of bright green broccoli, very al dente, in a thin butter sauce was only $2.50. The other choice of the day was, inexplicably, wax beans. (I know no one who is a fan.) The dinner menu is rounded out for landlubbers with a 14-ounce sirloin ($22), lemon and herb-roasted chicken ($14) and a vegetarian plate ($12).
Many of The Fish House desserts are made in-house, and these include crème brulée, a dense, rich flourless chocolate torte with raspberry sauce, and wine-poached pears (excellent, but not enhanced by the accompanying crème fraiche), all at $5.50. Our server recommended bread pudding studded with dried fruit, and it was very good. A fruit and cheese platter is also offered.
The restaurant’s open kitchen takes up the center of the restaurant. Seated against the balcony railing on the second floor, I was greeted with smells that were alternately pleasing (sizzling butter) and not so pleasing (heavy smoke from something being seared). I also had a bird’s eye view of the open trash container. But still I enjoyed myself in this visually appealing restaurant. Almost anywhere one’s eyes fall, they come to rest on something pleasant: the water wall, a dreamy mural depicting sea people, or even the heavy-duty china that is rimmed with navy blue stars.