Marx seems to have been right, at least about restaurants: The rich get richer. In this case, I'm talking about the Short North, which already is abundant with good restaurants and has bagged another prize. Two Fish Bistro is the latest and, in my view, best offering from local restaurateur Dae Oh, who also operates Shoku and Black Olive.
Located on the southwest corner of Buttles Avenue and High Street (across from Black Olive), Two Fish shares a common entrance with Oh's new sushi place, Red. If you ask, you can order from either menu. But the modern and elegant Two Fish was interesting enough that I concentrated only on it for this review. (A note: The menu changes, probably in part to reflect what fresh fish is available.)
Two Fish's slogan is "wild caught & fresh daily." And it lived up to it; every fish dish was satisfactorily fresh, according to my admittedly picky standards. The tastes and textures were nicely varied and the offerings showed culinary imagination.
I sampled three salads. One featured meaty slices of sushi-grade tuna alongside a good green salad with "roasted reds," cucumber, celery and a dusting of nuts in a miso dressing. Cucumber duck salad was another combo: shredded/chewy duck beside a salad cut into sticks of onion, cucumber, carrots and celery with a little cilantro and a rich sesame/olive oil dressing. My favorite salad included cold greens, nice avocado, some veggies, the miso dressing and warm, slightly spicy shrimp.
Starters were excellent. The long and crisp tempura shrimp were served over mixed greens (noticeably including spinach). Mini fish tacos came in crisp, tender little pastry cups holding white fish with vegetables in a rich garlic blue cheese aïoli. Fish cakes (made with snapper and perch) were breaded with Japanese breadcrumbs and fried to a savory crisp succulence.
But tuna tartar was the star of the show. Served in a martini glass with spicy chili oil, the meaty goodness of the tuna really came through-nicely set off by a garnish of onion and cilantro.
Entrees did not disappoint. Crab cakes were tender, succulent and pretty, although the cinnamon in the side dish of bread pudding may not be to every taste. Seared tilapia was pan-fried to perfection and slightly over-salted; it came with roasted potatoes and little bundles of asparagus wrapped in a thin sheet of zucchini.
I had misgivings about ordering fish ribs. I imagined hunks of fish on rib-like bones, which didn't sound very appetizing. Indeed, I found bones (big enough to pick out easily), but the dish was better than I expected. The grilled side of fish served with barbecue sauce was lovely and I enjoyed the sides of slaw and crisp, salty/sweet potato chips.
Two Fish curry stew was more French than Southeast Asian, with a curry-flavored broth holding plenty of seafood morsels, including mussels, crab, shrimp, calamari and fish.
The Two Fish scallops entree was just super, with under-seared diver scallops (ask if you want them cooked a tad more) served on a wonderful sweet corn and asparagus risotto with those sweet potatoes and a tasty pesto drizzle. Good as the scallops were, I liked Two Fish beignets even better. A mix of cod, white fish, red snapper and mahi mahi, these breaded deep-fried dumplings were tender, savory and utterly delicious. They came on good chewy rice with a luscious tomato cream sauce.
From the bar, I would recommend Jaws, which is Two Fish's version of a bloody mary. It arrived in a martini glass (the rim dusted in reddish spice) with a garlic olive, a hot pickled pepper and a grape tomato on a spear. The wine selection was pretty good. I preferred the California chardonnay from Santa Barbara Winery to the La Mère Boitier from France. Curiously, the Saint Clair sauvignon blanc was great the first time we ordered it, but only good on the second visit.
If you have room for dessert, I believe you would be pleased with either of the two I sampled: crème brûlée and an outstanding tiramisu, which was wonderfully textured and full of flavor.
Two Fish Bistro
721 N. High St.
Recommended dishes: Shrimp and avocado salad, tuna tartar, fish cakes, seared tilapia, beignets, curry stew, scallops, tiramisu.
Price range: Salads $9; starters $10; entrees $15-$18.
Hours: Monday through Thursday 5 to 10 pm, Friday and Saturday till 11 pm, Sunday till 9 pm.
Service: Smart and attentive, not obtrusive.
Rating: *** 1⁄2