FRESH IS a good word for Fish On. Fresh as in right out of the water, right out of the garden. Fresh as in bright, fresh as in breezy, even fresh as in a little brash.
And then there are those connotations of curiosity, giddy energy and occasional goofball mistakes.
With the opening of Fish On, the "new" Lewes -- the Five Points area near routes 1 and 9 that is evolving as a sort of Rehoboth North -- has both a fine restaurant and a comfortable town center anchor. It's such a likable place, and so prodigiously self-possessed, that it seems like a much more mature restaurant until the kitchen makes one of those greenhorn slips. It has one of the area's best chefs (Nino Mancari, formerly of Bethany's Sedona), a clear sense of identity and a winning personality, a strong but not showy wine list and a price range intended to make it affordable on a regular basis. There's some ill-considered kitsch (bland plastic-pack butter), and some mild cutesy-ness ("e.v.o.o." for extra-virgin olive oil), but that's just youth; they'll grow out of it. Meanwhile, somebody hold the mayo.
Despite its bland Applebee's-brick exterior, Fish On -- which has already given up the surfer-dude exclamation point that originally adorned its name -- is art-gallery sleek inside, centered on an exposed stainless steel kitchen set in deep relief behind the bar. Seating spreads in a square U, with tables in comfortably sized groupings at the sides and lounge seating along the front. The restaurant's windows run floor to ceiling on two sides, flowing easily into the patio and providing dramatic views of sunsets and the odd lightning storm.
Dinner at Fish On nearly always begins well. Among recent nightly specials was a fine sashimi-inspired appetizer of sliced halibut tossed ("quick marinated") in a chili-cilantro vinaigrette, presented over a green swirl of cilantro and then sprinkled with grains of pink sea salt that provided unexpected crunch and, in its concentrated, iodine-free clarity, returned the fish to its natural medium.
Textural interest is, in fact, a hallmark of Mancari's style. The raw asparagus salad -- which is destined, inevitably, to begin appearing on copycat menus as "asparagus carpaccio" -- is a tumble of thin slant-cut spears drizzled with olive oil, fresh coarse ground pepper (by request) and shaved Parmesan. Bite by bite, it's slick, crunchy, salty, peppery and just a touch bitter, a true aperitif. On the other hand, a version of Japanese edamame using local soybeans has too much texture for its (or your clothes') own good; the beans were slightly underdone, but more oddly tossed, still in the pod, in an olive oil that was much too fruity to suit the beans and in any case far too messy for a finger food.
Another special, a $12 light fare candidate, is a mixed seafood salad, a generous though somewhat over-delicate tangle of gently poached calamari, clams, mussels, shrimp and scallops mixed with roasted pepper strips and caramelized onions.
The fried lobster tail appetizer comes out in the kitchen's dependably light, almost tempura-weight batter lightly seasoned with Old Bay (not a personal favorite, but a nice tip of the toque to seaside tradition); the sweet-sour sauce is okay, but the "spicy mayo" is anything but. Crab cakes are very good here, large, lumpy and lightly bound, albeit a little heavy on mayonnaise (and the "lemon aioli" also tasted like the dish from Hellmann's); a bolder squeeze of lemon would elevate the crab to prime status.
Mancari has flirted with visual excess in his career, sometimes arranging eight or nine elements on a plate, but his instincts are generally to let his ingredients speak for themselves. And thanks to his habitual demand for quality supplies, they do. Whenever pan-crisped wild rockfish shows up on the menu, it's the first thing to be eighty-sixed, and no wonder: Meaty, moist and crisped at the flesh, it's simply seasoned and served with fresh chanterelles, asparagus and a little butter sauce. (Soft-shell crabs, in that greaseless batter, are the next thing to run out.)
The salmon presentation, which Mancari himself says is "everything I like" in terms of contrasting flavor and texture, is a sort of culinary joke on upscaled comfort food, and a more successful twist than most: a longways cut of fish -- a visual "rib" -- glazed with barbecue sauce and served over bacon-smoky white beans and topped with slaw. The dish succeeds both as a nostalgic combination of BBQ and beans, and on its own grounds, thanks to careful timing that keeps the beans intact but soft; the one flaw is the slaw, which despite its textural relief is bland (there's that mayo mojo again).
Shrimp on grits is a first-rate rendition of that often mealy-mushy dish, the shrimp punchy, the coarse South Carolina grits perfectly simmered and the whole dish permeated with the flavor of the chorizo. The moat of chili-spiked oil around the white grits is probably an irresistible temptation to the kitchen, a visual echo to the shrimp, but it pushes the richness factor to the tipping point.
And while seafood is clearly the mission here, the wild mushroom-asparagus pasta, an often maligned and almost universally over-rich concoction, is a mushroom lover's dream, a binge of sauteed oyster mushrooms and hen in the woods as well as cremini, asparagus you can still taste and a mild goat cheese cream sauce thin enough to stay in the background.
Fish On has a longish and moderately priced wine list, made even more attractive by a handful of good half-bottles. The bread, however, is a real gaffe: the artisanal equivalent of Wonder Bread, doughy, bland and slightly sweet. Its best moment comes recycled as bread pudding.