By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Like fraternal twins, The Fish Market is two entities. Born together — on Dec. 13, 1989 to be exact — each carry decidedly different traits.
The ground level greets with sushi and oyster bars as well as full-service dining areas accented by oak-clad walls, brass railings, and fiberglass fish hanging above.
The upper floor is the sibling that likes things a little posher and trendier. It goes by the name Top of the Market, and flaunts cream-colored walls, raised booths and Art Deco-ish lighting fixtures.
What they both share in common, however, are ringside views of San Diego Bay.
There are six locations of The Fish Market — locally another in Del Mar, plus four in Northern California. The original kitchen was founded in 1976 in Palo Alto by business partners Bob Wilson and the late Fred Duckett, who would harpoon swordfish for the restaurants. Eventually the duo launched Farallon Fisheries up north, which supplies the company with a variety of fresh seafood and smoked fish.
Yet some species such as opah and Pacific swordfish are sourced only a stone’s throw away from local fishermen at Tuna Harbor. During my recent first-ever visit to the lower level with a friend, the latter ended up on my plate in all its steak-like glory, and straight off the mesquite grill. Dense, rich and juicy, a quick squeeze of lemon was all it needed. Although as with all of the fresh-catch choices, you can opt to have it grilled with blackened or Cajun seasonings.
Meals kick off with baskets of good sourdough bread, an amenity that demanded a warm spinach salad composed simply with kalamata olives, creamy feta crumbles, and balsamic reduction. We skipped over the oyster and sushi selection and proceeded instead to truffle-rosemary scallops and ginger-lime prawns — two impressive starters of modern-day origin.
The large, pearly scallops were bedded on a salty polenta cake studded with apples and mushrooms. The overall scheme was poignantly complex.
Ginger escaped the prawns, but the lime didn’t. We weren’t disappointed since the magic of the mesquite grill gave the crustaceans all the flavor they needed while seeping also into the mound of sprightly coleslaw beneath.
My grilled swordfish entree came with a choice of two sides. I stuck to the old-school options — au gratin potatoes, which unlike most were deliciously crusty rather than goopy, and “fishwife rice” consisting of rice and vermicelli pasta seasoned with browned butter. Indeed, I was dining like it was 1989. And I didn’t mind one bit.
My companion gravitated to a pair of fish tacos after learning the opah filets tucked inside are breaded in panko crumbs. Their crispy outcome came with the bonus of kicky chipotle-ranch dressing, which proved a tastier alternative to traditional white sauce.
We were in good hands with a waiter named Dave, who has worked at The Fish Market for 26 years. Off duty, he’s an ocean fisherman, so naturally all of our questions about the menu’s vast seafood options were answered with authority.
It would take multiple visits to assess the menu’s winners and losers. But right down to the exquisitely spiced pumpkin cheesecake and perfectly tart key lime pie, we gave this ground-floor operation an A rating. It matched in quality the experiences I’ve enjoyed upstairs over the years.
To my surprise, I learned some days later from The Fish Market’s president, Dwight Colton, that both levels are slated for remodeling in the next few years. Design details, he added, are still in the works.
The Fish Market
750 N. Harbor Drive
Prices: Soups, salads and appetizers, $7 to $23.25; sushi and seafood cocktails, $8.25 to $17; tacos and sandwiches, $13.50 to $19.95; pastas, $15 and $20.25; entrees and specialties, $12.25 to $51
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.