“Je ne sais quoi” is an overused phrase, and I’m as guilty as anyone—usually with a terrible, dramatic French accent. At Desert Fish, for once, I said it appropriately.
The place purports to be an outpost of the Pacific Northwest, and there are some visual cues to this effect. You enter to a front-and-center refrigerated glass display case, in which oysters and Dungeness crab sections are bedded down on crushed ice. Opposite from the case is a totem pole, and wood experts might also notice that the paneling on the walls is Douglas fir. In a less sincere place, such efforts might qualify as gimmicks. But Desert Fish represents the rain-forest coast with such attention to detail that I caught onto its wet, salty vibe before I even knew why.
Connoisseurs in search of the marine terroir that oysters provide will have plenty to obsess about. After sampling every variety of oyster on display, on two separate occasions, I could certainly taste differences—even the occasional "salted cucumber finish." But it was inevitably the one in my mouth that I loved best. So I just went for the bigger specimens. Penn Cove and Nootka were consistently juicy and easily three times the size of some of the smaller varieties. The oysters came with a trio of vinegar-based sauces (called mignonettes), but I preferred a simple squeeze of lemon.
All of the acids and salad bitters harmonized with the grapefruit, created a thrilling counterbalance to the buttery, forgiving halibut.
Trailing close behind the oysters, my other favorite starters were the crab cakes. Moist and fluffy inside with flecks of parsley, the exterior was a perfect brown in color and texture. The cakes looked like a cross between a fried green tomato and a perfectly toasted English muffin. I could have used more roasted garlic aioli, but that’s always the case with me.
Like the oysters, the rest of the seafood on the menu is dogmatically Pacific in origin, including Dungeness crab, cod, tiger shrimp, salmon, halibut and scallops. The wine list also shows off the area’s strengths, but with an inclusive twist: Special attention is paid to other temperate rain forest regions, such as Chile and New Zealand. These countries produce some excellent wines, but I was happy they made exception to the Pacific rule by including an Albariño from Galicia, Spain; it's great with seafood.
This regional focus reminds me of eating in Europe; where everywhere you go, there are time-sculpted specialties made of hyper-local ingredients. America is relatively young, but some regions clearly have stronger identities than others—New Orleans and New Mexico especially. Desert Fish makes a strong case for the evolving cuisine of the Pacific Northwest.
Its borders are blurry and tasty. The grapefruits of Ojai, Calif., are about as far from Seattle as the halibut of Homer, Alaska, and together these ingredients give rise to another Desert Fish winner: a grilled piece of halibut with fennel and radicchio, Israeli couscous, and grapefruit beurre blanc. All of the acids and salad bitters harmonized with the grapefruit, created a thrilling counterbalance to the buttery, forgiving halibut.
One day’s special of Pacific cod crusted with hazelnuts arrived on bed of refreshingly al dente risotto. The not-too-creamy rice was studded with Brussels sprouts, wild mushrooms and other goodies, including the occasional batter-flecked hazelnut crunch. On the lighter side, a fabulous salad delivered an orderly pile of seafood atop mixed greens dressed in a citrus vinaigrette.
The bountiful waters of the Pacific Northwest are reflected further in another ordering option: You can add seafood to any dish on the menu, be it a pair of juicy, charred scallops; a skewer of grilled shrimp; or a buttered pile of lobster-like Dungeness crab.
Salmon, surprisingly, was disappointing. I had it on the Caesar salad and in the cioppino, San Francisco’s classic tomato-based seafood soup. Both dishes were excellent despite the salmon, which was dry even in the soup. Perhaps if I'd ordered it cedar-plank style I'd have gotten a juicier piece.
Save room for dessert. A blueberry crisp with housemade, minimally sweetened granola reminded me of my hippie college years in Portland. And the flourless chocolate cake, served under a blanket of warm ganache sauce, was as moist and airy as a soufflé.
A little stage is carved into one corner of the restaurant, where a guitar-strumming folk-singer from Seattle held court one evening. The je ne sais quoi was so strong I looked out the window expecting to see wet streets. But, apparently, bringing rain to the desert is more difficult than fish.
• Penn Cove or Nootka oysters
• Crab cakes
• Seafood salad
• Grilled halibut with grapefruit beurre blanc
• Flourless chocolate cake