Open Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 4:30 to 10 p.m. AE, MC, V. No reservations. Parking in rear. Prices: Main courses at lunch average $5 to $7, at dinner they average $9 to $10. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $20 to $25 a person.
The summer before last the main social activity around Chevy Chase Circle was waiting for the new seafood market to open. Last summer the waiting moved next door, following rumors that the seafood market -- very good, very successful and very expensive -- was opening a seafood restaurant. The Fishery was a hit from the day it opened; after all, people had been waiting in line for months.
It merits its success, with a few hesitations. The main problem with the Fishery is that you still have to wait in line. It is one thing for a fast-food restaurant not to take reservations. But an expensive, and particularly a unique, restaurant (What is more rare in Washington than a good seafood restaurant?) which is located in a neighborhood with few dining alternatives is thoughtless to refuse reservations.
But on to the good news. The Fishery's menu is all seafood except for a one-pound steak ($14.95) and pan-fried chicken (at $6.50 the cheapest main dish). The restaurant has the good sense to prepare seafoods simply rather than to overdress them, to let their quality dominate. All the fish is fresh -- 10 kinds of filets from croakers to salmon -- either plainly grilled or stuffed with backfin crab for an extra $2.50. Food can hardly be better. Take sweetly fresh fish, grill it quickly enough to crisp the surface but don't let it cook past the just-opaque state, top it with large lumps of crab bound lightly with mayonnaise, and it is inevitably a very satisfying restaurant meal.
The Fishery also fries its seafoods or sautees them in butter Norfolk-style. The Norfolk dishes are made with crabmeat, shrimp, lobster or scallops or a combination of them, and range from $10 for single seafoods or $15 for combinations. The best of them is crab, large snowy lumps lightly cooked. Lobster is fresh and as sweet as lobster ought to be, but is more likely to suffer from overcooking because the meat arrives cooked and is then sauteed. And shrimp are the disappointment of the Fishery's menu. They have been overcooked whether in cold shrimp cocktail ($5 for four shrimp), as Norfolk, fried or stuffed with crabmeat. But not only have they been overcooked, they have tasted strongly of iodine. Only the spiced shrimp overcome that flaw, because the seasoning masks the flavor. The problem is that the Fishery's shrimp are just frozen shrimp, the same as you can find in every market or restaurant, while its fresh seafoods benefit by their association with the seafood market next door.
Fried seafoods otherwise are unusually successful at the Fishery. Their breading is light, fresh-tasting and crisp, the scallops or oysters or clams inside not overcooked. The platters are plentiful, and range from $7.50 for smelts to $11 for a combination.Fried clams, contrasting the cracker-crumb crunch and soft fresh shellfish, are the best I have tasted south of Marblehead, Mass. In light of all this care and quality control, however, I do not understand the crab cakes. They are heavy with breading, flawed with bits of shell, overwhelmed with green pepper (the crab imperial has green pepper added to that excellent simple crab stuffing), and made of shreds of crab rather than large lumps like the crab stuffing. The management blames the problem on this season's inferior crabmeat, insisting that when the crabmeat is firmer the crab cakes will be purer and lighter. The other major complaint is that lobster is $10 a pound; though it is live from the restaurant's tanks, is available steamed or broiled, and undoubtedly is nicely done, even the Palm only charges $9 a pound.
So the Fishery's merits are most clear in its fish filets, its local clams and oysters and its crabmeat stuffing for fish. Don't expect better than ordinary shrimp. You would do well to start with clam chowder ($1.25 to $1.75); thick and spicy and well-laced with fresh clams, it is Boston clam chowder, which means it is based on clam broth but has no milk or cream. The oysters on the half shell ($3) are as plump and salty and ideal as any I have tasted in town. Obviously, care has been taken to clean them without washing away their flavor. You can order raw or steamed clams or oyster stew also as appetizers, most of them being $5. Most main dishes are available as children's platters for $6.
With main dishes come a choice of decent french fries with the skin on, cole slaw that has the good grace not to be sweetened, fresh green vegetables carefully steamed, or a pretty ordinary iceberg lettuce salad with either bottled dressing or the house dressing, a delicious tang of anchovy and lemon in a thick cream. Dessert varies, one day an exceptionally good, heavy chocolate cheesecake, another day a superb apple sour cream pie.
Those are the choices, an acceptable variety but not more than the kitchen can comfortably handle, taking advantage of the seafood market connection. The other connection that benefits the Fishery is its involvement with the wine shop down the block. The wine list includes unusual and very good California whites, most of which hover around $10, several interesting wines by the glass and either Robert Mondavi or Chantefleur wines by the carafe for $6. The wines are served with expertise, though the waitress who took our order didn't even know whether muscadet was from California or France, and you are apparently expected to pour your own wince once it is opened.
That brings us to service. It is well-meaning and gracious, but the staff are new at the job and some get rattled when the evening grows hectic. One day it was unconscionably slow, yet I have received complaints about the food coming too fast, with a second course served before the first was finished. Another day the service was knowledgeable, the waiter willing to offer advice when asked and check with the kitchen for special requests. In general, the staff are eager to serve well.
The dining room is a festive environment of barn siding with suspended baskets and lobster traps, entertaining your eyes with marvelous ship models under glass and stained glass windows, brass bells and little lamps that pull over the tables. The owners' names are woven into logos on mirrors and on crates that form the base of the long oyster bar. You can eat there, or at tables made from laminated hatch covers. In the background soft jazz plays. The room is indeed a pleasure cruise, vibrant and full of life. The environment is fun unless you get a table near the door, which blasts you with gale winds whenever it is opened in winter. If that happens, and there is no other table where you can move, ask the manager to turn on the auxiliary heater. Halfway through our arctic dinner, the manager spotted me as a restaurant critic, at which point he came over to tell us that the heater was being turned on. It worked well, and we enjoyed the rest of the meal in comfort. But there is no reason that restaurant critics deserve more warmth than anyone else.
Dinner at the Fishery is expensive, likely to run $50 a couple with wine, tax and tip. But because fish prices are keeping pace with house prices in Chevy Chase, that is not unexpected. By ordering carefully, you could keep the bill to half that and still eat a fine fish dinner. In any case, your chances of getting an excellent seafood dinner in the Washington area have just about doubled, thanks to the Fishery.