Original Fish Market

Original Fin

Original Fish Market
1001 Liberty Ave.
Westin Convention Center Hotel, Downtown

Mon.-Fri., 11 A.M.-1 A.M.
Sat.-Sun., 1 P.M.-1 A.M.
ENTREES: $24-$46
Nonsmoking, Wheelchair Accessible, Parking Validated ($50 Plus); Full Bar, Sushi Bar

It’s roomy. There’s a crowd at the octagonal bar. A movie star or two hangs out at the spotless sushi bar animated by chef Mike Au of the magical fingers. The 11-by-17-inch paper menu changes daily. The wine list rolls out like a Santa wish list from a fortunate child. A bundle of tables in the front and rear abstractly connects a middle row of padded wooden berths that – close your eyes! – could be the last gasp of a Pullman night train rattling along its midnight route. Retro 1950s patterned wallpaper evokes images of an old seaside cabana, hinting at the primal allure of the ocean. Crater-sized light fixtures break the patrician grandeur, a little funky – but who cares? All around us, people are slurping oysters and dipping rosy Gulf shrimp as if there’s no tomorrow. Things just keep getting better.

Impressive gumbos and blue-crab soup. Green mussels from New Zealand. Hand-picked mano-de-leon ("lion’s paw") scallops from Baja. Alaskan halibut. Hawaiian waluu. "Is not, was not frozen," says executive chef Brian Annapolen, who routinely wheels and deals over the phone and Internet with some 30-odd purveyors. His efforts help ensure that anytime you hear the tired whine, "There’s nowhere to have a serious meal after 10 p.m. in this town," you can rub your hands on an invisible oil lamp, imagine the genie’s apparition and cry, "Original Fish Market!"

We’re a bicoastal nation in that a majority of us voluntarily clusters within 100 miles of either ocean. Is it the tidal pull of the moon or the ionic magic of land interacting with salty sea vapors that draws us to these environs? "Maybe it’s the alluring smell of coconut oil from SPF 45 sun block," suggests my husband, Brad. Though there are those who say the salt air makes everything taste better – a towering pile of balsamic-chili-glazed shrimp, impeccably fresh and full of flavor, is as good as any I’ve had seaside.

This month, when currents change and migrations begin, the chef suggests an oyster sampler, wild salmon and "sushi, sushi, sushi." On any given day, the house offers 12 to 14 types of oysters (a wet locker keeps them in seawater until they arrive) and 20 to 25 types of fresh fish – some cooked, some raw, some pickled, gently blanched or steamed. The little sushi nook is a worthy stop with its glistening, unsullied fish, as pretty as jewelry you pin onto your lapel.

With such a gorgeous crop of seafood arriving daily from all over the world, Annapolen is meticulous about supporting local growers. Spinach, asparagus, tomatoes, potatoes and squash are bought locally, in season, as are all herbs used to garnish entrees.

A perfectionist with a sense of urgency and a tremendous work ethic, Annapolen is a second-generation chef who remembers falling for restaurant life when his dad took him to work as a small child. Fascinated by the big, shiny equipment and the inevitable cacophony of a busy kitchen – "Everybody yellin’ and it smelled great" – Annapolen had settled on this career path by the time he was 10, and he has never wavered. His thoughtful, prolific output and attention to detail still evoke old memories: a perfect caesar, tableside; lush lobster bisque; even that first great macaroni-and-cheese.

This is a chef who hates to "86" anything. If the golden trout runs out at lunch and the Idaho rainbow between 5 and 7 p.m., he’ll reprint the menu two, even three times a day. "I love to feed people," he says. "If it’s a birthday, anniversary, graduation, first date, they’re going to remember the moment – and honestly, maybe not where, but more likely what they ate – for the rest of their lives."

Main courses are superb. On the evening we were the beneficiaries of a deal struck with a broker for off-size African lobster tails, I knew what he meant. Annapolen cracked the gargantuan tail and extracted the heavenly meat, perfectly cooked.

It was hard to call it quits. Slow-poached Hawaiian waluu, a fatty, oily fish, at once rich but descriptively elusive, stands up to its oily personality with a touch of lemon, showing off its innate buttery essence but fooling you with a clean, light touch.

Taking the "boring" out of "vegetable" is the broccoli rabe with roasted peppers, garlic puree and sherry gastrique balanced over carrot ribbons drizzled with hot champagne nage and crowned with fresh celery shoot. The flavors are bright and lovely together. Organic salmon innately pops with flavor, falling apart at the ping of a fork in a mesquite sauce laid on so lightly it’s barely there. Annapolen is a bit of a closet minimalist, and it shows here.

If you’re a creature who goes to a fish market and orders beef, face it, people may stare. I recommend the 21-ounce prime-aged rib-eye (generally from a Colorado stockyard), cooked over mesquite with salt and pepper and just a little olive oil (garlic and herbs cover up the flavor, says the chef) with a precious tomato jus and pickled mushrooms. Two voluptuous beer-battered onion rings are worth the splurge.

If you can talk your table into it, the chef’s menu is positively fun. Annapolen will stop and ask some neat questions: "What did your grandmother cook? What did you feel like eating when you arrived? What do you love? Hate?" The difference between a meal and a masterpiece hangs on a chef whose technique renders the wallpaper insignificant. It accounts for all those chefs hanging out on their Monday nights off.

"Eugenius," whispered M.J., our server, referring to the immensely talented pastry chef, Eugene Kanar. The entire evening could just be a ruse for dessert, we decide, after tasting daffodil strawberry romanoff, a crispy homemade flower cup with vanilla-bean ice cream, whipped chantilly, spilling strawberries folded with Grand Marnier. Double-decker raspberry-and-citrus chocolate mousse rolled in crunchy banana chips infiltrated with orange zest is heartbreaking to cut into. Decorative chocolate ribbons look as if they have been shaped with a curling iron. Really, don’t skip dessert.

A group of lifelong friends infrequently but assuredly gathers here whenever life circumstances align our paths. It began by welcoming back a prodigal friend long ago absconded to Australia and continued later, when one of us lost a parent. On and on… It’s just that kind of place, where a glass of bubbly can be sipped from coffee to dessert without scowling servers, where we can dally, pass plates, taste one another’s dragon rolls. OFM doesn’t toe-tap, lord checks or do the post-dessert hound, a technique that sometimes involves bumping tables with vacuums.

Though at the moment we’d rather be tossing off our flip-flops to frolic on the balmy coast of somewhere else, reality is that in Pittsburgh, the season is short and ephemeral, restricted to backyard decks and swimming pools, frosty glasses from the freezer. The Original Fish Market effectively maintains the illusion of the sea in our midst – minus the boardwalk arcades, the amateur parades, and without a need for the "must-have" Italian ice.

And you can just drop in.

Each month, Deborah McDonald jump-starts appetites with lively restaurant reviews that scrutinize who’s cooking what and where. She works anonymously, visiting each restaurant at least twice before writing her column.

Do you know of a restaurant you’d like to have reviewed? E-mail Deborah.

Categories: Restaurant Reviews