Restaurants & Food
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

    Related Items

Fish Lines

By Phyllis C. Richman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 13, 1998

  Richman Review

Turning Tables
From Sugar Roses to Cactus Flowers: Washington's famed pastry chef Ann Amernick has left the elegant French/American restaurant Michel Richard Citronelle and surfaced at, of all places, the Southwestern spot Red Sage.
West of Center: While the MCI Center neighborhood becomes ever more gentrified, some plain old bargains are still to be found around the Convention Center a few blocks away. Casa Juanita, at 908 11th St. NW, is homey, particularly when the staff's children are around. It offers hefty meal-size Salvadoran appetizers such as thick tortillas – pupusas – filled with crusty pork and cheese for $1.50 to $2 each, or greaseless and crisp fried yuca (which puts most french fries to shame), with crunchy bits of pork and clove-drenched cabbage salad, for $5. The long list of Salvadoran and Mexican entrees climbs from $6.50 to $14.75. The Salvadoran dishes are more interesting, especially a rustic and briny seafood soup. The biggest draw, though, are the margaritas: tart and not the least sugary, a mere $3.50.
Dupont Circle has more than enough restaurants. Within a few blocks you can find dozens of cuisines, any price range and every style of dining. Yet a few places, Pesce among them, nearly always have a line. The interesting thing about Pesce's popularity is that it persists even through changes of chefs.

The previous chef, David Craig, brought Pesce to new levels of accomplishment, and the crowds grew larger. But after he left, even while the new chef settled in, I saw no thinning of support. Pesce is simply a hit. It packs in diners as tightly as canned sardines (which this all-fresh fish restaurant would never serve). It accepts dinner reservations only for big groups, it won't seat a group until everyone has arrived, its tables are tiny, and its prices are high enough to make you wonder where the tablecloths and the fresh flowers are. The menu, which changes twice a day, is written on a large blackboard that's propped on a chair while you try to decipher its chalk marks. Pesce doesn't make it easy to remain faithful.

What this restaurant has going for it – besides adorable wooden fish on the brick walls and a chattery, neighborly good cheer – is a great fish supplier. Pesce buys the best and serves it at its freshest. Who cooks it becomes secondary. Within limits.

When David Craig left for the Tabard Inn this summer, Pesce hired Justin Nielsen, who'd been the chef at the Danish Embassy. He got a slow start, took off for a honeymoon, and only gradually has made his mark in the kitchen. The basic quality of the fish has remained consistently excellent, and manager Regine Palladin, as ever, instills her style. On the surface, little has changed.

The menu is still long on appetizers – seafood, a couple of soups and salads – with the perennial oysters on the half-shell, tuna tartare, Caesar salad, steamed mussels and crab cakes. The main dishes – three entrees of pasta and about six of fish and shellfish – are as complex as ever. Grilled fish is served in big white bowls with platforms of polenta and seasonal vegetables, all adrift in some seafood broth. This is modern fish cookery, experimental and intricately seasoned.

The wine list remains short, its emphasis on Italian and French whites, and decently priced. The bread basket is abundant and varied – though the focaccia is spongier than it once was. The service is efficient and jaunty, which means the tables can turn quickly without diners feeling mistreated.

The changes Nielsen has brought to Pesce are subtle. His cooking has been more flawed than his predecessor's, but it has steadily improved. Everything's going in the right direction. And he has brought one particularly strong suit: his Danish background.

The most sensational dish I found among the many I tried at Pesce over several months was pan-seared baby flounder with a Scandinavian flavor. It made me want to either come back again the next night or hop a plane to Copenhagen. Nielsen, I discovered, is a wizard with dill. The dish was simple (maybe that was part of its success).

Sparklingly fresh flounder fillets were seared until golden, cooked through but not dry, and served on a buttery dill sauce the texture of thick cream. Brussels sprouts, so soft they nearly melted yet delicate rather than cabbagy, teamed with diced potatoes to help sop up the sauce. It was a comforting and elegant dish.

Pesce is also one of the few restaurants where it's worthwhile to order shrimp. Except for the small and tasteless ones that show up in the pastas, they are fresh rather than frozen, thus sweetly flavorful. They're often served as an appetizer – pricey but worth it – either grilled or sauteed. They are also part of the occasionally available plateau de fruits de mer, which is a mini raw bar of oysters, clams, cooked mussels and stone crab with three sauces and seaweed salad. At $22.50, it can be a dramatic first course for two to four people.

Few of the other appetizers have been memorable. Oysters fried in soggy batter make you wish you'd ordered them on the half shell, crab cakes are pedestrian, mussels are fine but no better than routine, and brandade of cod – here served warm – tastes more of mashed potatoes than of salt fish. Any of these might satisfy, but seldom do they excite.

The pastas are complicated by many ingredients, rich with cream or salty with an excess of olives, bacon or anchovies. With minor adjustments they'd be perfectly good, since they are imbued with nice tangy broths or buttery mascarpone.

Nielsen's distinction lies in the fish entrees, especially that dilled flounder, his moist, thick steamed cod or his Spanish mackerel, crisp-skinned and velvety on a pool of intriguing octopus broth with wild mushrooms. He plays up fish we seldom see on other menus – rich, oily mackerel that is so fresh it doesn't taste fishy; Hawaiian opah that seems like a cross between tuna and swordfish; pink-fleshed char. Nielsen shows no instinct, though, for shellfish stew, which has been overwhelmingly salty and unfortunately reminiscent of spaghetti sauce. And in general the fish outshine their vegetables. While long cooking works with the Brussels sprouts, the limp asparagus, gummy parsnips and bland black beans are a disappointing surprise, given the precision of the fish cookery.

Pesce doesn't make many of its desserts, but as with its fish, it shops impeccably. Thus, in addition to a flawless little creme brulee and the inevitable tiramisu, you can find well-crafted fruit tarts and superb sorbets. Remember the blood orange sorbet at the next sign of drear winter.

Pesce – 2016 P St. NW. 202/466-3474. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Saturday noon to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 5 to 9:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations accepted at lunch and for six or more at dinner. No smoking. Prices: lunch appetizers $5.50 to $9.50, entrees $8.50 to $17.25; dinner appetizers $5.50 to $10.50, entrees $13.50 to $19.50. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $35 to $55 per person.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

Back to the top