Catch of the week
Sacramento, CA 95814
In restaurants, the current trend at least pays lip service to the idea of procuring the best ingredients you can, then treating them simply so their natural flavors shine through. This may be the doing of Chez Panisse, but there’s at least one kind of less-exalted restaurant that has more or less always followed this philosophy: the fish joint. Tuna salad aside, there’s really not much point in eating fish unless it’s very fresh, and so a genre of not-too-fancy establishments that combines the approach of the fishmonger and the restaurateur sprang up to purvey fresh fish, simply prepared.
The Fins group of markets and grills in the Sacramento area is one such, and now it has an outlet in Midtown, just across from the giant Safeway. With a spare interior (think exposed black ductwork, widely spaced tables, and a rather desultory sprinkling of fish-themed decorative objects on the walls) and a menu that leans toward the bare-bones, this isn’t an upscale place. (That said, entrée prices do tend to edge up around $20 when you’re looking at the fresh fish dinners—but that includes salad and a side.) There’s a cold-case front and center when you enter the restaurant, showing off the various seafood. All the fish is also available for retail sale. I took a look, as a guide to what I should order, and while some of the fish looked just fine, some of it did look a little dryish and not as gleaming-fresh as it should; in terms of both variety and good looks, the seafood counter at Taylor’s Market blows Fins out of the water.
We were, however, there for dinner rather than shopping. The specials board listed both wild king salmon (Alaskan, our server told us) and all-you-can-eat, peel-your-own shrimp. My husband asked our server what came with the shrimp, and she said, “A bucket. That’s pretty much it.” (She was, I should add, very friendly and efficient throughout.) While the utter simplicity of that was appealing—and we were a little sorry that none of our dinners came with a shiny metal bucket—we decided to aim for more of a rounded meal than the all-crustacean fest.
As for the menu, the appetizer list divides mostly into the cocktail genre and the fried genre (calamari strips, onion rings), with a few outliers like steamed clams, smoked salmon and the heretofore unknown species the buffalo prawn. As for heartier fare, you’ll also find fish sandwiches, variants on the fish and chips theme, and the real meat (as it were) of the menu: plates of simply grilled fillets or steaks of various fish, served with either “Maddie’s Patties” (which we’ll cover later), rice pilaf, or vegetables, plus coleslaw or, for $1.50, an upgrade to a green salad. There’s a short wine list, mainly including basic supermarket brands, and several beers that go well with the simple fare.
We stuck to the basics: a cup of clam chowder, for my husband, and a plate of fish and chips; for me, that wild king salmon (I figure the specials board shows off the freshest fish). I wanted to upgrade to a garden salad, but “louie” was the only dressing they had that day (the server described it as “like Thousand Island”), so I ended up with Caesar instead. The Caesar was predictably a little bit dull, with too much gloppy dressing. (I swear that Caesar salads have got to be about the most bastardized food creation on the planet. The pasty-white excrescence that has come to pass for Caesar dressing is just wrong.) There were some nice crunchy sourdough croutons, but the Parmesan shreds had that hard-rubbery pre-shredded quality about them.
My husband’s cup of clam chowder also tended in the pasty white direction. It had nice clam flavor (if a little more grit in the clams than one might like), but the base was ultra-thick; I think a spoon would have stood up in it and, rather weirdly, it actually was piled up a bit higher than the edge of the bowl. The creamy base was also ever so slightly broken, separated into little granules.
The fish and chips were better, with an unconventional but pleasantly light cornmeal dusting on the moist fish, which separated into thick, tasty flakes. Fans of the battered British style might be disappointed, but the golden, crunchy, thin-cut fries would probably mollify all but true churls. The fish’s coating was a little oily, but, hey, that’s fish and chips for you. There was a relatively subtle yet tangy tartar sauce alongside—I’m not normally a tartar-sauce fan, but I liked this rendition—and some coleslaw that was, oddly, sugar-sweet.
My salmon, a thin-cut steak, was marked with diamond-shaped grill marks and had a great almost-charred flavor. It was a little overcooked by contemporary salmon-cooking standards, though, I thought, a dryish pale pink throughout, so that you lost the fish’s natural moisture. The Maddie’s Patties were strange. The server had described them as cheesy, mashed-potato patties, but it was just a mound of deep-orange mashed potatoes, with a slightly glutinous texture (punctuated by bits of potato skin) and not much cheese flavor.
Meanwhile, our daughter was happily munching a grilled-cheese sandwich from the kids’ menu. I have to say, though I wouldn’t really judge a restaurant by its kids’ menu, it was a pretty awesome grilled-cheese, done on sourdough with just-right browning on the buttery, crunchy exterior. It was an old-school grilled cheese, just like my mom used to make, and Fins—despite its clean modern lines—is basically an old-school fish restaurant. If you’re looking for fancy garnishes or squiggles of sauce, you won’t find them here; however, you’ll find plenty of slabs of fish, fried or grilled.