Yes, it's the obligatory Lenten fish post. We kinda did one last year, and probably the year before that. But this is a new list, a roster of ten of the best fish dishes your humble food scribe discovered since I did that last list, with nothing repeated.
Included in this year's list are two poke joints, because judging by our page hits, y'all love the poke. But notice that there's no sushi, because that's a whole other category!
And yes, in this alphabetically ordered list, I include a few Long Beach joints. Even though we are called OC Weekly, we cover Long Beach. Always have. So deal.
The chefs at Big Catch Seafood are wizards of the deep-fry. The crispy Brussels sprouts are faultless, served in cute little fry baskets. Fried catfish fingers are encased in a golden, greaseless, crunchy cocoon of batter as rigid as coral until your teeth breach the crust to find a creamy white flesh as clean as milk and without a trace of muddiness. The same batter gilds the $5 smelt, which may be the best fried dish of all, each length of fish locked in the golden amber, then served with a horseradish and lemon tartar sauce that cuts through its complex fishy soul of sweet and bitter.
Garlands of lightbulbs crisscross overhead. And on long communal picnic tables, groups of people will eat, drink, take selfies and sing "Happy Birthday" in an asphalt courtyard with potted trees and an herb garden. If a joyous summer-night wedding banquet were ever to be held at a Home Depot Garden Center, it would probably look something like this. The chef is Mathieu Royer, once a cook at Pizzeria Ortica, Hinoki and the Bird, and Morimoto, now inventor of dishes that demonstrate the Japanese virtue of artistic restraint. His grilled swordfish is a lone hunk of snowy moistness floating atop a Thai coconut curry with waves of potatoes sliced long and thin. You don't get rice with it, but wished you did.
Eqeko's ceviche is real Peruvian ceviche, served with crunchy fried corn kernels of cancha and its original form called choclo. Most important, the fish in the dish is flawless, luminous, piled into an ivory mountain after being firmed up by a sluicing of lime juice. And when you bite into a cube, you discover it still has texture–it springs back at you before it melts into nothing. Each subsequent forkful is dragged through the electrified orange liquid flavored by ají rocoto, one of Peru's native peppers. And when your tongue begins to tingle from the hotness and your lips start to pucker from the acidity, you calm it all down with chunks of camote, boiled sweet potato.
A shower of golden fried garlic bits adorns Garlic & Chives' salmon-belly dish, already perfect in its own right, but further elevated by it. But it's in these lightly floured, crispy-fried curls of fish that the restaurant has introduced Orange County to its most inspired salmon dish. You don't eat this dish; you experience it with wide-eyed disbelief that salmon could melt so readily in your mouth, as though it were ice cream. There are other appetizers using the salmon, such as spring rolls but it's you have to order the salmon belly first and foremost.
Jinbei is a Japanese restaurant's Japanese restaurant. If you've never had unagi in any other state than lacquered in sticky sauce on a caterpillar roll, the vinegared eel and cucumber is a must. The meat is singed naked so the char cuts through its fishiness, and the cucumbers are spiral cut to resemble accordions. Both absorb the dressing and make a revelatory dish in a restaurant that has an ocean of revelations.
Poke, the Hawaiian delicacy, has come of age recently in OC thanks to the success of purveyors such as Pokinometry in Anaheim, North Shore Poke Co. and others. But how Poke Etc. is offering it–displayed and sold for $13.50 per pound or over warm rice as poke bowls–might be the truest incarnation of poke Southern California has seen yet. One of the best here is the spicy mayo poke over rice–cubes of raw tuna covered in a Sriracha-tinted pink creaminess and freckled with tobiko, sliced onions and scallions.
PokiNometry is built on the Chipotle model. To order here is to get in a queue behind a sneeze guard from where you direct at least three assembly-line employees in how to build your meal. You start with the base, which can be either salad greens, a handful of store-bought tortilla-chip rounds, seasoned sushi rice or plain brown rice. To this, you add layers of flavor and raw fish sauced in a combination of ponzu, sesame oil and as much chile oil as you can handle. What you taste in these poki bowls will be familiar, as though you've had these exact combos of components before, perhaps as a rainbow roll. But it hooks you because there's a sushi-grade level of freshness, a creaminess to the fish and a pleasant burning sensation that comes with the sauce used to dress the meal. You also get the feeling the people behind the concept mastered the mysterious alchemy of sushi long before they opened this place. They even figured out that brown rice works extraordinarily well with these ingredients, in this order and dabbed with the nuclear-powered hot sauce called "Dynamite."
Provenance's house-smoked trout, which was recently transferred from the entrées to the appetizer list, is meant to be shared and eaten as though a dip with toast. What's most admirable about the dish isn't that the whole fish is splayed open, frosted with a lemon cream, and decorated as though it were cake with hearts of palm ribbons, roasted tomatoes, capers and artichokes, but that it comes with the head still attached–a startling presentation when you see it outside of a Chinese restaurant.
The best time to visit Restauration is for brunch on weekends, but you should come out at dinner time anyway, when the strung-up lights lend a romantic mood and you could have the lightly battered and fried white shrimp served with mint, sesame, lime and a spicy aioli. And for the main course: the perfectly seared Pacific albacore. It can come in a puddle of gazpacho that can turn anything it touches into something delicious or whatever zesty fruity accompaniment is currently in season.
Restauration, 2708 E. Fourth St., Long Beach, (562) 439-8822; restaurationlb.com
Waterman's Harbor in Dana Point has the best fried whole fish in all of OC. The entire creature–a whole black bass with its skin and tail intact, its head propped upright, mouth agape–is flash-fried under a barely there batter. Even though it's presented whole, the fish is also nearly all deboned, with the flesh butterflied and the spine collapsed flat from the load of artichoke hearts, tiny potatoes and white beans it carries on top.
Waterman's Harbor, 34661 St. of the Golden Lantern, Dana Point, (949) 764-3474; watermandp.com