4055 Adams Ave. (Kensington)
Prices: Salads, small plates and sandwiches, $9 to $17; entrees, $13 to $23
By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
To anyone mourning the disappearance of Tracy Borkum’s long-established Kensington Grill, her re-branded replacement, Fish Public, will erase your sentiments faster than you can extract the meat from a gaping mussel shell.
Perhaps it was the stark void of fish houses east of Interstate 805 that prompted Borkum into making the unexpected change earlier this season. Or maybe it’s because she excels in reinvention, as evidenced in 2009 when she transformed Laurel in Bankers Hill into a perpetual hotspot that is now Cucina Urbana. For whatever reason she axed Kensington Grill, nobody seems to be complaining.
The new interior design is crisp and airy, with soft touches of nautical-themed wallpaper accenting white walls and wainscoting. A cozy oyster bar sits at raised level near the back while a cushy front patio affords ample seating. Borkum’s goal of capturing the feel of a Nantucket beach cottage is competently achieved, albeit with a meek touch of New England highbrow tossed in to appease Kensington’s thirst for finery. The only thing missing is a nearby wharf.
Arriving from such top-notch restaurants as Boulevard in San Francisco and Animal in Los Angeles is acclaimed Chef Jordan Davis, who showcases two oceans across his menu. While salted cod fritters and seafood poutine reflect East Coast inventions, diners can bolt over to the Pacific for dishes like Skuna Bay salmon and Baja-style fish tacos. Or if the Gulf of Mexico calls, the chef offers an ultimate take on Louisiana-style shrimp and grits spiked with glazed pork belly.
For whole-roasted market fish, Davis buys regularly from local anglers. The head-to-tail offering on this visit was Baja red snapper, a re-cultivated, fleshy white fish appeasing guests at a neighboring table. Others have included sculpin and sea bream, though with a treasure chest of other coveted species yet to enter into the rotation.
In our kickoff, my companion braced his sensitive palate for the heat of peri peri peppers used in “laughing bird shrimp.” The shrimp were served in a skillet alongside pickled cucumbers and leafy butter lettuce for making rollups. Much to his relief (and my disappointment), the blistering effects didn’t pan out. The dish was nonetheless tastier than traditional lettuce cups, with plenty of other zesty seasonings springing forth from the vibrant-red sauce cloaking the shrimp.
Salmon tartare served in a jar takes on additional oomph from mildly sweet Asian pears contrasted by the sharp pith of charred radicchio. The integrity of the fish held up swimmingly and was bridged to the other ingredients with the slightly fermented essence of mirin (Japanese cooking wine).
We moved temporarily to land proteins with a “BLT” salad of greens and heirloom tomatoes hiding wisps of savory bacon jam underneath. Equally memorable was a pig-shaped board of honey dew strewn with intensely flavored smoked ham. The meat is sourced from Benton’s, a Tennessee company famous for its old-fashioned curing techniques.
In addition to an obligatory shortlist of non-seafood entrees such as house-made bratwurst, grilled hanger steak, roasted chicken and the carryover Kensington Grill burger, red meat appears also in the “low country boil.” So what if you’re required to wear a silly bib. It’s part of the fun.
The meal arrives in a bucket containing large prawns, clams, mussels and excellent house-made sausage resembling fresh kielbasa but with red pepper flakes in the mix. A few potatoes and teeny sections of corn on the cob also surfaced. The server then dumps the works onto a paper-lined sheet pan and you suddenly feel transported to the banks of South Carolina, where the production dates back to Confederate days. The modern-day twist here is Old Bay Seasoning aioli served on the side. It’s all pure pleasure that demands slugging down a can of Milwaukee’s Best lager.
My companion opted for a trio of seared scallops perfumed with ras el hanout, a North African spice blend usually containing cardamom, cinnamon and clove. I tasted all three. Eggplant, cauliflower and golden raisins also augmented the dish, which verges on the sweet side. The scallops, along with bratwurst and fish and chips, are among the few international influences on Davis’ menu.
Aside from a sturdy wine list, craft beers and inventive cocktails, beverages extend also to house-made sodas, which the menu calls “shrubs” to indicate that this century-old way of making carbonated fruit drinks doesn’t allow for high-fructose. The grapefruit shrub we tried was out of this world.
Overseeing the dessert line is accomplished Pastry Chef Jack Fisher, who relays his magic through peanut-blitzed chocolate semifreddo for the ultimate sweet-and-salty flavor rush. You’ll also find toffee cake and peach pie with buttermilk crust. Sweet or savory dishes that you can’t finish get bagged, tagged and checked into a refrigerated shelf at the front desk. For sure, Fish Public has nailed down all of the fine details that will keep customers coming back.