The first time Henry Brandon Williams prepared a fish burger, he did it for love, not money. About a decade ago, his mother decided to adopt a pescatarian diet, and Williams wanted to make sure she had something to eat at a family cookout. So he chopped fish fillets in a food processor, pressed the flesh into patties and grilled them up.
"The carnivores, they just jumped on" the burgers, Williams recalled. "She almost didn't get one."
I can relate. In early October, I visited FishScale, the sleek new Shaw-area shop that Williams opened this summer, and the place had already been picked clean for the night, which is not as unusual as it sounds. At present, Williams has only about 120 patties available per day, each made with sustainable, wild-caught fish or shellfish, some with names you rarely see on seafood menus around Washington.
But Williams had a backup option ready to slap on the grill, a fish from Hawaii called monchong. The first time he pronounced the name, I thought he had sneezed. I must have looked confused because Williams quickly added that the fish also goes by the handle pomfret. Kristal Williams, the chef's sister and the general manager at FishScale, suggested that monchong's flesh tastes sweet and buttery.
Sustainable fish with sweet and buttery flesh? You can call it dumpfish for all I care. I was immediately baited by the concept, before taking a single bite.
Williams has learned a few things about seafood burgers and cooking in the years since he dazzled the family with his grill improv. He graduated from L'Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg in 2010. He spent a year working at BlackSalt, the seafood lover's destination in the Palisades, featuring a sit-down restaurant and one of the finest fish markets in the District. He also workshopped his FishScale concept for a year with a stand at the FreshFarm Market by the White House.
He scouted a number of neighborhoods before settling on Florida Avenue NW for his bricks-and-mortar debut. Carved out of a narrow retail space — once an appliance store and a hair salon in the dark days before Washington became a wonky midway of restaurants — FishScale comes off as a stripped-down fast-casual. It's like a dockside fish house that's been transported to the big city. The menu is a series of wood planks affixed to the wall, each identifying the burgers and sides available that day. You may have to ask about the price of some items.
Unless you're a marine biologist, you'll also have to ask about the specimens that Williams sources from ProFish, the Washington seafood supplier committed to sustainability. Since opening in August, FishScale has served up burgers formed from triggerfish, sheepshead, wahoo, amberjack, monchong, pompano and other species that haven't been fished almost to oblivion. With every choice it makes, FishScale wants to ensure that you — and countless generations after you — can all enjoy the fruits of the sea.
As such, FishScale is a casual seafood spot that smells like the future: craft-conscious, affordable, sustainable.
Each fish burger sports tire tracks across its surface, courtesy of a wood-burning grill that imparts a delicate smokiness to the patty. Williams has refined his burger-forming technique: He no longer uses a food processor. Instead, he removes the bloodlines that often run down the center of the fish and then grinds the fillets, as if he were preparing a hamburger patty. Williams adds no filler to the ground fish but does fold in a secret ingredient to help bind the flesh.
The technique makes for a surprisingly meaty fish burger, so different from the standard fried fillet tucked inside a toasted bun. FishScale's toothsome patties are served naked between two halves of a luxurious olive oil bun from Panorama Bakery. Don't waste your time hunting for tartar sauce. There isn't any. The condiments are limited to house-made ones, including grilled onions, pesto, cucumber-and-tomato relish, dinosaur kale kimchi, sunflower-yogurt coleslaw and a sambal hot sauce, some of which you can mix and match.
Even when garnished, though, the fish burgers are not exactly dressed for the opera ball. Williams is a minimalist, preferring to apply his condiments sparingly so that they don't jam up the flavors of the fish. Even potential Bigfoot garnishes, such as the kimchi or the sambal, tread lightly across these patties.
As a result, the pompano burger, paired with kimchi, goes down clean, cool and briny, an ocean breeze off the Florida coast. The burger built with sheepshead — the black-and-white striped "convict fish" with the Gary Busey chompers — has an almost shellfish-like sweetness, which can be softly embellished with the cucumber-and-tomato relish. And while I didn't find the Hawaiian monchong particularly buttery, I did find it sweet and firm enough to stand up to that freaky sambal.
But if you're looking for something buttery, go with the blue crab burger, a golden puck of succulent lump meat from Cambridge, Md. The flesh is so fresh and pristine, you'd swear Williams had pulled the crabs from the Chesapeake earlier that day. The best part of this crustacean patty? I detected a hint of tomalley, that blue-crab gland with the headstrong flavor. Perhaps my palate fooled me, but that burger had a depth and richness that no mere crab cake could touch.
Once you order a burger at FishScale, your sides are limited to Jackson's Honest chips or one of two seasonal dishes. In September, Williams sold grilled corn brushed with a pickled plum sauce, which added a touch of acid to those sweet summer kernels. Alas, the corn is gone, but the grilled romaine remains. The half-head comes drizzled with a kefir-crème fraîche dressing, tart and creamy, topped with sun gold tomatoes and granola. It's both awesome and off-putting, depending on what ingredients wind up on the end of your fork.
The salad offers a side benefit as well. For demanding customers, Williams will take the dressing and slather it on a bun. After all, he's already asking diners to forgo their favorite fish when they walk in the door at FishScale. He's wise enough not to deprive them of something approximating tartar sauce, too.
637 Florida Ave. NW. No phone. wearefishscale.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday-Saturday.
Nearest Metro: Shaw-Howard University, with a 0.2-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $3.50 to $17.95 for sides and sandwiches.