Pier 76: Under Pressure
I don't know when I've had a better moules frites than the ones Pier 76 Fish Grill is cooking right now. When I pried open that first shell, taking the meat off by tonguing it, I thought the soft, practically melting morsel had to have been a fluke. The rest of the batch couldn't be as perfect. But then I ate the next one—and the one after that. Each mussel was as supple and silken as the last. How did the chef do it? Was it the species? The way they were cooked? The steaming liquid? The timing? Did Pier 76's owner/chef Chris Krajacic make a deal with the devil? Or had he been doing mussels this good as the executive chef at Walt's Wharf in Seal Beach and I just never knew it?
If he did, and it was the only thing he served at his new restaurant, it would be enough. Like Cream Pan's strawberry croissants, the mussels will soon make Pier 76 legendary. Every component of the dish was spot-on. The fries—buried beneath the pile of shells—transformed into thirsty sponges for the broth. And that broth! Sweetened by slices of softened onion, a splash of wine, a hint of lemon and roasted poblanos, it was as precious as the mussels themselves: not too harsh or acidic, but so balanced it could be sipped as a soup.
Pier 76 Fish Grill is built into the ground floor of the historic Cooper Arms building in Long Beach, and it's unlike Walt's Wharf in every way. It's a pay-at-the-counter, quick-service, moderately priced seafood restaurant modeled in the same spirit as California Fish Grill. The dining room is barely a room at all, with butcher-block tables and a cramped space no bigger than most Subways. On sunny afternoons, most of its customers choose to sit outside in the gorgeous patio surrounded by a garden and the soaring apartment building. But as evidenced by those mussels and a live lobster he grills with roasted garlic butter, Krajacic is aiming higher than the fast-casual his place seems to be—much higher. He joins Slapfish's Andrew Gruel and Roe Restaurant's Arthur Gonzalez in that seafood-restaurant sweet spot between the California Fish Grills of the world and the Scott's Seafoods and Mastro's Ocean Clubs.
Krajacic offers a flawless grilled artichoke, the leaves gently charred and served with a thimble of lemon aioli for dipping, all for a price that already makes it better than what you get at most sit-downs. He pours a clam chowder made from scratch, using pieces of smoked bacon that imbue the broth with their flavor and porky chew. He even makes a lobster-and-langostino roll worthy of Portland, Maine, with a lighter-than-air chipotle-blue cheese sauce that doesn't obscure the sweetness of the shellfish, candied bacon, diced tomatoes and "pure love" (listed as an ingredient). If I found a flaw anywhere on the menu, it's a minor one: He cubes his ahi poke pieces pristinely, without even a trace of sinew, but he's just a bit heavy-handed with the soy sauce and raw onions.
Most diners who come gravitate toward the grill menu, a list of fish seared on a smoky grate, then served alongside a thimble of a specially formulated sauce. There's a blue cheese-bacon sauce for the mahi mahi and a cucumber tartar for the salmon. Some sauces, such as the cilantro-mango salsa for the barramundi, work to highlight the subtle characteristics of the fish; while others, such as the bitter arugula-almond pesto for the swai, are better left untouched, lest they overpower the dish's star. All the meals in this part of the menu are served in a cake pan lined with parchment paper, the fish laid over a bed of nutty rice and an additional side. His mac and cheese made with Vermont white Cheddar is rich with wholesomeness. Broccoli coleslaw studded with dried cranberries is fragrant of toasted sesame seed oil; a kale salad tastes better than raw kale has any business tasting.
But perhaps the most endearing thing about Pier 76 is the ancillary items. Krajacic offers homemade watermelon, cucumber and peach lemonades in neon red, green and orange cups, displayed in a cooler off to the side but impossible to ignore. They're delicious, refreshing and, most of all, show off his sincerity. Even more convincing evidence of this: The cookies and brownies arranged next to the register. I found out the treats weren't made by Krajacic or his manager, but rather baked at home by their moms. If Pier 76 were any more sincere, the menu would be scribbled in crayon.
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