101 MGM National Ave., Oxon Hill, Md., 301-971-6050. mgmnationalharbor.com.
Open: Dinner daily.
Prices: Entrees $14 to $65.
Sound check: 71 decibels/Must speak with raised voice
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The following review was originally published March 22, 2017.
Fish by José Andrés review: The area’s best seafood is now at MGM National Harbor
José Andrés says he took one look at where MGM wanted him to plant a place to eat in its $1.4 billion National Harbor casino overlooking the Potomac River in Maryland and thought, “With these views? We’ve got to be a fish restaurant.”
And so it followed that his 11th area dining room, Fish by José Andrés, launched in December with nearly 300 seats and an exhibition kitchen whose cooks have the luxury of a sunset view. Last month, the Spanish chef added another of his passions to the scene: a menu devoted to fried food, served at a bar all its own.
If the name is a spoiler, the design is a dramatic underscore. Everywhere you glance, there’s something for the eyes to feast on, be it nets repurposed as fanciful lights, entire walls dressed up in faux scales, communal tables shaped like boats or an outsize photograph of a woman in the ocean, cavorting with stingrays. Walk from front to back, and the restaurant, one of three flagship dining venues at MGM, fairly undulates, much like Fish’s signature whole fried porgy from the Chesapeake Bay.
The seafood bar is the gem store of your fish fantasies, pretty much a shore-to-shore collection of best-ofs from across the country. I’m talking stone crabs from Florida, king crab from Alaska, middleneck clams from Virginia. The only reason you’d question the $30 price for an ounce or so of abalone is if you’d never dived in California waters and attempted to separate the delicacy — a marine snail with an adhesive “foot” muscle — from a rock (been there, done that). Geoduck? Yes, please. The kitchen serves the giant clam, revered for its maritime notes and pleasantly crunchy texture, as translucent petals in a pretty shell. The only swab it needs is a dip in the accompanying white soy cocktail sauce. Do shrimp and grapefruit ring a bell? It’s a salad Fish borrowed from another Andrés creation, America Eats Tavern in Tysons Corner. Until the restaurant closed in December, it was home to Fish’s executive chef, Nate Waugaman, 41.
Oysters. Get some. The bivalves — five or so most days — can be had raw, grilled, barbecued, fried (with a pitch-perfect rémoulade) or dressed like a gin and tonic (with booze, Fever Tree and lemon zest sharing the shell). Speaking of which, the bartenders are as able as the cooks at Fish. I’m hooked on Tractor Pull, which mixes bourbon with orange marmalade, Luxardo maraschino and elderflower vinegar.
No matter where you cast your net, you’re likely to pull up a prize. The crusty crab cakes are as they should be, rich with local jumbo lump crab and barely held together with bread crumbs (from Fish’s leftover Parker House rolls, grace notes to the tuna tartare). Thick and meaty rockfish, smoky from the charcoal grill, shows up inside a ring of pureed herbs, with mustardy halved potatoes. My favorite way to eat lobster here is as a sandwich. Make that a glossy brioche bun cradling sweet seafood and mayonnaise espuma, or foam. Impossibly thin shoestring potatoes are impossible not to finish.
The South is saluted with lobster jambalaya, based on Carolina gold rice and built for two or more, and peerless hush puppies hiding diced butternut squash. Brined, barbecue-rubbed chicken is zesty proof the kitchen can do more than fish well. If there’s room for improvement, it’s in the dining room, where servers are known to drop dishes off with a mumble, or to the wrong guests.
Before you request the check, ask for pineapple upside-down cake. This is an enlightened version, with a quenelle of vanilla ice cream and a ribbon of fresh pineapple.
I’ve reserved the best for last.
The most exclusive real estate within Fish is the Maryland Fry Bar, a curved marble counter in the center of the restaurant, where a narrow glass shield is all that separates five lucky diners from a chef dedicated to their pleasure. There are three ways to tackle the cooking: a la carte, or two preset menus. Forty dollars buys a customer eight small seafood courses, a collection dubbed “the classics.” Fifty dollars nets 11 courses, “the José way,” with fillips including sea urchin.
I wager the cheaper package is plenty for most eaters. Up first is a crisp shiso leaf dolloped with tuna tartare, both creamy and spicy. The one-bite salad is soon replaced by an avocado wedge whose crackle yields to buttery flesh, its richness kept in check with a spoonful of bright orange trout roe and seaweed salt (dried ground seaweed). The courses, including a fried oyster and Florida shrimp, are handed to diners by the cook who made them, promoting conversation between server and served. The meaty oyster, we learn, is a Lucky Shuck from Maryland, a bivalve exclusive to MGM and served in a cool ruffle of lettuce swabbed with lively tartar sauce. The shrimp, meant to be eaten whole, brighten after a dip in the accompanying lemon salt. Fish’s light batter is explained by extra-strength sparkling water and vodka.
One sign of good frying is the lack of stain it leaves behind on its plate; the paper liners on these dishes are so clean you could reuse them for your grocery list. Like a good story, the fry bar sustains your interest, urging you to keep eating. Just when you think you might need a change of pace, along comes a palate-cleansing intermezzo: ribbons of seaweed with juicy cubed pear on a puddle of horseradish-spiked yogurt. The pause refreshes, enough to get the juices flowing for a chicken wing. Fry again? Keep in mind, this is a Maryland bar. The gossamer wing is zapped with hot sauce, kissed with honey — a challenge to Buffalo.
Afterward, a server places a ramekin with fresh rosemary, lemon and a tiny white ball in front of us. “Please don’t eat this,” she instructs as she pours hot water over the elements. The bead absorbs the liquid and becomes a wet nap, the star of a finger bowl. The fry bar has many nice moments. This is one of them. So is dessert. Pink grapefruit segments, arranged just so over a big plate of shave ice and drizzled with honey, is a simply perfect way to end a meal of mostly fried food.
As an added bonus, the kitchen near the fry bar is where Fish tries out new ideas. Next visit to Vegas on the Potomac, I want to taste for myself the Old Bay aioli-stuffed fried mussels I recently saw in the testing stage.
Spring and summer should only burnish the restaurant’s allure. A monster wine cask is expected to dispense hard cider on the patio, which will also see the arrival of a crab shack. When Andrés dreams, it’s never small fry.
Already, this much is true: The best seafood restaurant in Washington is in Maryland.