Friday, July 9, 2010

Eater's Remorse: Not-So-Fresh Fish

After visiting renowned Nico's Pier 38 in Honolulu/Ala Moana, Oahu, Hawaii (more with pictures in a separate post!) and enjoying perhaps some of the tastiest and freshest fish I've ever had in my life, the idea of dining at a neighborhood seafood locale on a dock became exponentially more appealing. I'm always for diamonds in the rough, and since moving to Long Island's quaint South Shore, peppered with whimsical villages and Stars Hollows-flavored downtown strips, it's exciting to "discover" local favorites and see for myself what makes them great.

A frequent diner at locally-owned J&R's Steakhouse in Islip (don't laugh - the marinade is good, and where else can you get macaroni salad with fresh pickles, lobster bisque or house salad, a big ol' charred ribeye, and a slice of fresh cheesecake for under $20?) - whose temperatures, might I add, are far more consistent and dead-on than its Medford, Stony Brook, Rocky Point, and Patchogue counterparts; I actually order medium rare here, and don't get medium! - I couldn't help but notice a hand-painted, weathered sign announcing a fresh fish market just on the other side of the pier. "White Cap Fish Market," it boldly declared, with arrows and other indicators pointing down a gravel driveway that led to what looked like a bunch of semi-abandoned warehouses.

Needless to say, I was intrigued.

We got a coupon in our Valpak (again, don't laugh - we have a hefty mortgage and apparently, shameless coupon-clipping is a part of growing up and being a respectable adult) to buy one dinner and get the next half off, so Boy and I decided, what the hey? And on a slow Thursday evening, we decided to up and check it out.

There are nice touches that give the White Cap Fish Market appeal. For instance, the giant wheel things you see on farms and on boats repurposed as tables are kind of fun. You really can't beat dockside dining, even if the harbor is a teeny tiny one overlooking a trailer park with docking rights (which just blows my mind, personally. They must be hardcore boaters over there to prioritize boats over dwellings! ... But then again, I'm a creature for comforts, and kind of a brat). The swans and mallards floating along are picturesque, and the breeze from the water is a pleasure. Also, the raw bar they had set up outside looked promising, since we all know you can't really do raw unless it's fresh.

Things that were not so nice, but interesting points were the giant barn-type building you drove through to leave, and the Port-a-Potty that served as the facility's restroom. I mean, granted, Nico's Pier 38 did the same thing, but Hawaii's Port-a-Potties are much less questionable than New Yorks, considering that homeless people in Hawaii actually spend their free time picking up trash from the ground that careless tourists toss aside as if they were ... well, in New York.

Boy and I, after a quick visual inventory, decided to proceed with our dining plans and check the place out. We went inside to look over the decent-sized menu, and pored over that, hemming and hawing over the selections for a good 10-15 minutes. Apparently, that's all it took to become a part of the dinner rush, and a line quickly formed out the door, since the ordering style was that you place your order indoors at the window, and people bring them out.

As we waited on line, I wandered over to the market area of the place and was shocked at the prices. You'd think going directly to a fish purveyor that said fish would be priced very competitively, and that it'd be superior cuts than the supermarket variety, right? Well, I was astounded to see that their dry-looking flounder fillets were $12.99 a pound, which is roughly the same as Whole Food's going rate. The uncooked stuffed mushrooms and clams were in the neighborhood of a buck each, but the rest of the raw fish didn't look half as nice as the seafood department of my favorite supermarket, Best Yet, and cost twice as much.

Anyway, once we made it up to the window, we eventually decided on fried oysters for me, with fries and not the steamed veggies I'd requested since they don't do substitutions, and fried calamari on linguine in marinara for Boy. Although the clam chowders had won much acclaim in competitions against 4-star counterparts, the day was simply too muggy to sample anything like that. We walked back out to the dock and prepared to wait a whopping 40 minutes for two simple fried dishes. By then, it was kind of the point of no return since we'd already stood in line for 15 minutes and scoured the menu for 10; timewise, we were to deeply invested. So we grabbed a table and hoped for the best.

When the food finally came, my hopes rose up again like the buoy the swans kept bumping up against. The portions were HUGE! My oysters were a good three inches long and inch and a half across, and on a generous heap of fries. For the first time in a long time, I was excited about the size of an oyster. Boy's plate of linguine was literally a platter the dimensions of a small chafing dish at a catered event. The tartar sauce and cocktail sauce provided were by Ken's and not homemade, so automatic point detraction for that, but still not a problem, and certainly not something ginormous portions for a $25 meal (with coupon) couldn't make up for.

Well, sad to say, the excitement waned and quickly dissipated after the first bite. My oysters, which I was so thrilled about after visually detecting the granularity of cornmeal, were overbreaded and overcooked, and certainly not fresh. They weren't the plump, sweet things that I've had in New Orleans, bursting with juice and clean flavor. Instead, they were somewhat metallic, the breading was starting to get soggy from the steam in the styrofoam container, and were dirtier inside than my beloved mollusks of the Gulf. My fries were unseasoned, nondescript shoestrings that reminded me of my camp counselor days, and pathetically, were more appetizing than the dry, densely breaded oysters I struggled to choke down.

The calamari rings were a little soggy, too, because of the steam, and the linguine, though cooked well, was also nothing thrilling. The marinara sauce was sweet and pretty decent, but in that familiar high school cafeteria way, the way that gives adults heartburn later on (which did happen to Boy).

It's such a shame to me that a place with such a large following and rustic venue that supposedly deals in fish and specializes in it can't serve something fresh to its clientele and forces them to wait that long for mediocre, simply fried food. The prices are too high for the quality of food, even with quantity considered, since the average price per plate was about $16. The oysters didn't taste fresh, the calamari was slightly rubbery, and a 10 yard walk shouldn't be enough time for fried food to get soggy around the edges ... especially when it should have been served right off the fryer.

The outside people were very friendly, though, and it was with some guilt that I said good-bye to them when they asked us to come back again soon. I knew that the answer would be that I wouldn't.

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