Grazing: Atlanta Fish Market

Little has changed in the last 20 years at Buckhead’s iconic seafood spot

How do you know that a restaurant hasn’t changed a lot in the last 20 years? One clue is that when you sit in a booth, the upholstery sinks to such a degree you want to ask for a child’s booster chair.

That was my recent experience at the Atlanta Fish Market. Instead of asking for kids’ seats, we asked for a table and were moved to the glass-walled room with a view of Pharr Road. My impetus to visit after 10 years was comparing the restaurant to the rash of fairly new seafood spots like Goin’ Coastal, Lure, and the Optimist.

Some background: Atlanta Fish Market opened 20 years ago and was an immediate hit for good reason. It was among the first — if not actually the first — to offer a truly expansive menu of sparkling-fresh fish cooked straightforwardly without sauces that mask taste. Such novelty wasn’t surprising back then. The owners, Pano Karatassos and Paul Albrecht, of the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group, had already radically changed the dining scene here in 1979. That’s when they opened Pano’s & Paul’s, usually regarded as the city’s first truly fine-dining venue.

In the 30 years since Pano’s & Paul’s opened, Buckhead Life created about a dozen restaurants, most of them expensive, with the exception of the Buckhead Bread Company. (The Atlanta Fish Market, by the way, took its name from an earlier incarnation, Fish Market, that Pano and Paul opened in 1981 at Lenox Square.)

Atlanta Fish Market’s architecture is unique and fun. It is based on a ’20s-era train station in Savannah, Pano’s hometown. The interior is huge by the standards of today’s restaurants. Paul eventually left Buckhead Life to create his own company and open comparatively low-cost restaurants like Dos Amigos Cantina.

The first thing you will see as you approach Atlanta Fish Market is a three-story, 65-ft. copper fish stood on end, as if jumping from the water. It was made by Martin Dawe of Cherrylion Studios and installed two years after the restaurant opened. The fish has garnered huge attention, listed in travel guides and, at one point, the “Guinness Book of World Records.” Some love it. Some detest it. Think Marietta’s Big Chicken in the neighborhood of the 1 percent.

After vacating our squishy booth, we were seated at a tiny two-top that barely accommodated the dishes we ordered. This seemed ridiculous since there were few diners in the huge restaurant and many larger tables available. I was embarrassed to complain again. In fact, I was embarrassed to ask the server to remove empty plates from the table. I must say: the service was certainly not what I remembered.

Executive chef Robert Holley’s menu is huge, mainly straightforward, and for the most part well prepared. The top of the menu lists the day’s “fresh catches.” You pick from among 16 varieties and then choose your method of preparation – sautéed, broiled, or blackened. There’s also a Hong Kong style with sherry soy, scallions, ginger, spinach, and a bowl of sticky rice. The latter is extremely popular if Internet reviews are at all reliable.

Wayne chose cod broiled with olive oil and lemon. For sides he chose a bowl of sticky rice and a “vegetable medley” whose broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots seemed to dominate the plate. That is to say that the serving of cod was rather small, even if flavorful. I’m not a great fan of cod myself but Holley’s treatment could change my mind.

The restaurant was featuring lobster specials that night. I wasn’t in the mood to crack claws and tails. I almost never like stuffed lobsters. And I wanted to try something a bit more complicated. So I ordered the risotto with English peas and pieces of a whole lobster. Sorry, but it was totally meh. The risotto was entirely too thick, even mixing in the pink sauce that surrounded it. The rice had no al dente texture at all. I know that a really good risotto is difficult for a restaurant kitchen to make, since it technically requires 20 minutes of observation and stirring. But there’s more. The English peas had no taste and, worse, neither did the lobster. It didn’t seem like a whole lobster’s flesh in the bowl but, okay, I believe in dwarf lobsters now.

The menu includes a lengthy list of starters, including sushi, and pedigreed shrimp and oysters. We ordered a couple of the least expensive. I have to say they were, overall, better than our entrees. Wayne’s Savannah blue-crab chowder was nothing short of incredible, thick with crab meat in a rich broth with a slight sting, topped with a few croutons.

I ordered a four-piece super-crunch roll from the sushi bar. It included shrimp tempura, tobiko, and avocado, drizzled with eel sauce. Perfect. I could make a meal out of both appetizers.

Now how does Atlanta Fish Market compare to the Optimist and Lure? First of all, they are all priced about the same. We’re talking entrees $25 and up, with occasional less expensive dishes like Wayne’s cod, about $18. People I dine with regularly are always shocked by the cost of seafood now. It’s true that not so many years ago fish was relatively inexpensive.

But prices have risen dramatically around the globe in recent years. People in London are freaked out, for example, that the cost of simple fish-and-chips has almost doubled. The chief reason for the rising costs is that we are depleting the oceans to the degree that the supply can’t keep up with the demand. Another reason is that the cost of meal to feed farmed fish has risen dramatically, too. Transportation costs have shot up because of oil costs. Goin’ Coastal only serves fish from sustainable sources, so that can add to costs, but they do manage to charge less than the other three restaurants mentioned here.

As far as creativity goes, the Optimist blows Atlanta Fish Market out of the saltwater. You’re not going to find a dish like swordfish poached in duck fat and served with celery-root puree and garlic-chile relish at the Fish Market. Nor will you find anything like Lure’s sautéed Florida pompano with red grapefruit, fennel, tarragon, sesame seed, and polenta.

I’m sure the kitchen at the Fish Market is capable of more creative work, but I don’t know that its Buckhead clientele and conventioneers would go for such food. You absolutely see a much more diverse crowd at Lure, the Optimist, and Goin’ Coastal. Their dining rooms are comparatively much smaller, so I’m sure their overheads are lower, too. But it’s a shame the Atlanta Fish Market isn’t devoting at least some of its huge menu to cuisine as edgy as the aquatic Godzilla out front surely wants.

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