Opening a new upscale restaurant in a super-hip Shore town can get people talking—and worrying.
Especially when the building housing it is a historic landmark, now sporting a cartoon-like logo on its marquee. Or when it promotes specialty cocktails and wine flights to accompany a number of high-priced seafood dishes. Or when it has the audacity to go by a simple, one-word name like Fish. What foodies were fretting about was the possibility that Fish would be style over substance. Happily, that is not the case with the latest addition to Asbury Park’s restaurant lineup.
Rather, the 154-seat Fish is serving some of the city’s most delicious dishes to diners who savor not only the kitchen’s culinary feats, but also the immense 5,500-square-foot space—once home to a bank and Asbury Park’s first post office, now tastefully outfitted in earth tones and wood and leather.
Taking on this project was a bit of a flier for Jim and Karen DeGilio, two Culinary Institute of America graduates who spent the last 14 years cooking Italian fare at their restaurant, Pinziminio, on Long Beach Island, but who have long hankered to open a restaurant in Asbury Park. The couple spent about seven years looking at spaces in the city before discovering the former post office building, which, despite having once served as a summer headquarters for Woodrow Wilson and then as the Asbury Park National Bank, had been boarded up for several years.
“The first day we walked in, it was a beautiful sunny day, but we came in with flashlights and everything was dark,” says Jim, 54. “Even under those conditions we thought, This is absolutely phenomenal—the vault, the soaring ceilings, the original marble floor.”
Then came 18 months of planning. The DeGilios originally set out to launch a second Pinziminio (the original, which they oversee, remains open.) But with the glut of local Italian restaurants, they chose a concept they found surprisingly lacking here: high-end seafood. Ten months of renovations included exposing the bricked-over arched windows, encasing the bottom halves of the 16-foot marble columns, which were damaged beyond repair, and creating a 14-seat private dining area inside the former vault.
Fish quietly launched last October, giving the couple ample time to work out the kinks before beach season.
The remaining kinks we noticed were largely in service, which doesn’t yet match the polish of the rest of the place. With each course, plates were not delivered simultaneously, nor always to the correct person, and when we asked for bread in place of the flatbread crackers served as a starter, we were given croutons and then a hamburger roll.
Nonetheless, the restaurant has been drawing a steady local clientele, many of whom are initially drawn to Fish’s happy-hour offerings—$5 drinks and $5 appetizers served in the bar area from 3 to 6 every afternoon.
Karen is the executive chef; her husband runs the front of the house. The dinner menu is divided into Little Fish and Big Fish dishes. However, several Little Fish selections are not much smaller than Big Fish portions, while costing a third to a half less than the entrées. A light eater could be fully sated making a meal of a few Little Fish.
Among the outstanding appetizers were lobster mac and cheese and Low Country shrimp and grits, the former being an oblong bowl filled with creamy shell noodles and large chunks of Maine lobster in melted Gouda and jack cheeses, while the latter featured three grilled jumbo shrimp atop a mound of bacon, scallions and tomato-infused grits. The crab cake was also a winner: a 1 ½ inch-thick, lightly sautéed mass of pure crabmeat served with a spicy remoulade and mache salad. Pan-roasted Maine mussels, while swimming in a refined fennel-and-saffron cream sauce so good I could drink it, did not adequately bring forth the roasted flavor.
Of the non-seafood appetizers, the ricotta dumplings were as pretty as they were tasty: five cheesy pillows encased in a thin semolina skin, sprinkled with pine nuts and bathed in sage-seasoned brown butter. Babyback ribs—soaked in a Sriracha, soy and brown-sugar sauce—were another generous and tasty plate.
Pasta seems to be an afterthought. In the one we tried—tagliatelle with peekytoe crab in a mascarpone, shallot and speck sauce—the meaty speck overwhelmed the subtle and not-too-plentiful crab, while the sunnyside-up egg that was supposed to crown the dish was nowhere to be found.
Seafood entrées were outstanding, led by the black cod, which Jim says is the most popular fish dish here. Marinated in a light citrus honey that doesn’t overwhelm the sweet, buttery fish, this deftly seared black cod defies expectations set by its bland cousin, North Atlantic cod. Yellowfin tuna was perfectly grilled, medium rare, and served with a horseradish cream sauce on a bed of red wine-braised lentils, kale and roasted vegetables. Even the obligatory salmon was well prepared—pink and flakey with a ginger glaze, served with asparagus and a ginger-butternut purée that could have been a bit more plentiful. Another of our favorite entrées, the shellfish pan roast—a huge bowl of lobster, shrimp, clams, scallops and mussels in a tomato-fennel broth—was scheduled to come off the menu but is staying on. Yay!
Recognizing that not everyone is a seafood fan, Fish offers alternatives, including a crabmeat-topped filet mignon, a grilled New York strip steak and a seared double-cut pork chop, thick and meaty and served with a tangy apple purée and roasted brussels sprouts and pearl onions. We also tried surf and turf, an addition to the menu after a number of customers complained that this classic (or cliché) was absent. The petit filet mignon was rich and tender, while the butter-poached lobster tail was a bit overcooked.
Among desserts, the star is a dulce de leche banana split, an old-fashioned dish made modern by caramelizing the bananas before adding mounds of dulce de leche ice cream and chocolate sauce. Another standout was Creamsicle crème brûlée with a subtle orange taste throughout the creamy custard and a bolder burst of flavor from the candied orange peels on top. Both the almond cake and the E Street Truffle cake were a bit dry, presented more like muffins than a slice of cake, but both were helped by the rich and creamy gelatos that accompanied them.