North County restaurants seem to have better staying power than their city cousins, although just why is unclear.
The Fish Market in Solana Beach opened in 1981, instantly rocketed to immense popularity and has not looked back since. Even on a recent Monday evening, a slow night for many eateries thanks to the competition of televised football, there was a brief wait for tables.
This particular restaurant's staying power is easily explained and owes primarily to the scope of its menu, which is a comprehensive survey of fish cookery. The point of view seems to be not only that nearly anything that swims can be served, but that a well-run kitchen should be able to execute a variety of cooking styles.
This particular point is crucial and requires a commitment most restaurants will not make, but one The Fish Market makes through a menu that offers not only traditional American grilled seafood but fried, steamed and baked offerings; shellfish cocktails; home-smoked fish plates; Louieq and stuffed avocado salads; chowders, Italian-style cioppino and seafood in marinara sauce; sushi, sashimi, raw oysters and clams; and various pastas.
Among the pastas, the fettuccine rustica avoids all seafood and simply is tossed with cheese, chopped fresh tomato, scallions and enough garlic to make it notably breathy.
For all the variety, nothing is terribly complicated, and the restaurant seems to rely primarily on high-quality ingredients. The Dungeness crab served as a cocktail was sweet but briny, beautifully fresh and portioned in great quantity, which made both it and its $5.95 price tag easy to swallow.
Clams and oysters come in part from the restaurant's own shellfish farm in Puget Sound. These are available raw, or in an oyster shooter called a "hot shot" that souses the bivalve with peppered vodka (this must make an interesting last moment for the oyster), or baked in cheese and Rockefeller versions. Several different kinds of shrimp are offered, from tiny Canadian bay swimmers to oversized Mazatlan prawns, which can be had in a cocktail, or breaded and fried, or skewered with bacon and grilled, or even--for those disposed to this sort of abomination--coated with spices and "blackened."
The menu cautions that the availability of all seafood is subject to weather, season and "fishing luck" (the small Fish Market chain owns two boats), but nonetheless, the variety of fin fish is impressive.
The list recently included Idaho trout, Catalina swordfish, Mexican sea bass, local yellowtail and mako shark, petrale sole, Chilean farm-raised salmon, red snapper and mahi mahi.
The kitchen handles the mesquite grilling carefully; a recent order of swordfish (offered as two small steaks rather than the usual slab) was soft, succulent and meaty, and seemed almost like a seagoing filet mignon. A similar juicy succulence made excellent eating of the skewered deep-sea scallops, which were spaced with squares of bacon for extra flavor.
The Fish Market always has had several weak points, especially a very limited choice of side dishes that includes rice, cottage cheese, decent cole slaw and cheese sauce-drenched gratin potatoes that are good when served hot, which was not the case recently. There are boiled potatoes, but no french fries, an item that many appreciate with fish.
The restaurant formerly refused to serve dessert but finally saw the error of its ways and now offers strawberries in cream, hot apple crisp and a very fine "brownie" cake that has the light texture and moist richness of a French chocolate cake.
As a final point, a common complaint has been that the high ceilings and massive oak fixtures give the place the acoustics of a train station. That situation has not changed, and does not seem likely to do so. But the seagoing accouterments, intended to suggest the milieu of a fishing boat, remain attractive, as does the low-keyed, casual mood.
THE FISH MARKET
640 Via de la Valle, Solana Beach
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily
Cost: Dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $35 to $60. Credit cards accepted.