Roe Your Boat to Roe Restaurant
Though it's called Roe Restaurant & Fish Market, don't expect much on the restaurant front because that part isn't quite ready. For now, what counts as seats are a few plastic chairs and tables set out on the sidewalk. Dining here means slurping chowder and cracking into a lobster on paper plates while you're inches away from the parking meters and Belmont Shore foot traffic. But that's exactly why you should come: seafood tastes a heck of a lot better when you're not dressed up and charged a customary tip at the end. Like its peers Bear Flag Fish Company and Slapfish, Roe belongs to the new school of seafood restaurant where instant gratification and low cost is more important than a dining room. You get the sense that chef/owner Arthur Gonzalez, formerly of McKenna's, just wanted to start cooking, even before his restaurant was completed.
The kitchen he commands is the very same cramped short-order station in which the Dog House, Belmont Shore's very good but ultimately doomed sausage hut, used to cook its wieners. Gonzalez and his crew now sear fish and toast buns on the hissing griddles behind a small refrigerated seafood display case that constitutes the "market" part of the name. All the while, a Fryolator gurgles, turning hand-battered fillets of fish golden and the double-fried potatoes crisp. Above, blackboard menus previously adorned with hot dog cartoons are now populated with mermaids and other aquatic characters. As I mentioned, the rest of the space (which was home to a bar called Barry's Beach Shack about two years ago and the short-lived barbeque restaurant called SmoQue after that) remains wrapped under tarp and is presumably in the midst of construction. When I asked about it, the cashier mentioned with fingers crossed that they hoped to be done sometime in the fall.
In the meantime, come anyway. Bring a warm sweater and get ready to eat out under the stars, because my friends, this is as wonderful a seafood experience as you'll ever have on Belmont Shore. Order and slurp their excellent clam "chowda" (yes, it's spelled just like that). It's less a soup than a clam feast—scratch that, it's a clam-meat mosh pit. If I encountered a chunk of potato among the never-ending spoonfuls of mollusk, it must've been by accident. The fisherman's stew is closer to its dictionary definition, though it's also packed with carrots, celery, onion, mussels, giant clams on the shell and tender nubs of fish. Its tomato-based broth stings with a surprising spiciness you wouldn't have expected from this pseudo cioppino. Garlic bread in the form of a sliced and char-roasted baguette functions as a soup sponge. Or better yet, try the lobster bisque, which is so rich they also use it as the au jus for a seafood rendition of a French dip sandwich.
When you're ready for a main course, pick from a list that ranges from a ten-buck tilapia to the halibut, retailing for $6 more. Your chosen species comes out of the chill case and is griddled to order before being served with brown rice and a fistful of slaw. Though the ahi tuna poke is technically an appetizer, it's worthy enough to be spoken of as a meal: the red, luminous cubes seem to glisten, lubed in a mix of soy sauce and flakes of chili, then garnished with onion and julienne strips of seaweed. Every bit of the dish is as legitimately Hawaiian as their ceviche is Baja Californian.
Order the lobster bánh mì even if it isn't really a bánh mì (they use slider brioche instead of baguette). A proper Vietnamese do chua (pickled carrots and daikon) and strips of jalapeño make it a remarkable pair of mini sandwiches regardless of what they're called. The bread is so perfectly toasted it seems as though you're sinking your teeth into a crumbly meringue. In the middle of it all, there's the wiggly, chilled coolness of the lobster. There's also a cheaper alternative in a tuna slider special, with thick slabs of the fish cooked to a snowy whiteness and lightly dressed—this is the kind of tuna-sandwich filling you can never get out of a can.
There are still some adjustments to be made to the roe bowl, however. This signature item has salmon roe and a soy-simmered hard-boiled egg topping, marinated seaweed salad and brown rice. But one night the rice was as hard as gravel and the egg was overly salty. With time, I know that even this will be corrected, with or without that promised dining room.
This review appeared in print as "Roe Roe Roe Your Boat: McKenna's former chef opens a new seafood restaurant in Belmont Shore."
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