Is Fish Bar a joke? I hate to ask—I know it sounds pejorative—but I honestly can’t figure it out. David Morton and Michael Kornick (the pair who own DMK Burger Bar next door) have been known to engage in cheeky behavior. And in decor, Fish Bar walks a fine line between authenticity and cheesiness: Its painfully “quirky” touches—an overblown photo of surfers on one wall, a shelf of sundries on another—infect the otherwise charming U-shaped counters and plaid-swathed booths. So whether Fish Bar strives to emulate a fish shack or to gently mock it, à la Ed Debevic’s, is not immediately clear. Especially because there are cocktails with names like “Negroni Baloney” and “Sonja Does Sicily.”
But in contrast to this unfunny wackiness is a straightforward menu that can be broken into a few categories: raw seafood, grilled seafood, fried seafood, seafood soups and seafood sandwiches. The latter has gotten the most attention—Chicagoans, perhaps in direct relation to how ocean-starved they are, are ravenous for lobster rolls. The market-priced version here has a serious celery presence (an aspect that contributes a certain herbal levity to the dish), but it suffers from the inconsistent cooking that is the thorn in Fish Bar’s side (or, rather, the sides of its diners). Some of the pieces of lobster in the specimen I tried were sweet and tender; others were nothing but a mouthful of chew.
The codfish sandwich, with tartar sauce and a slice of American cheese, fared better, the crisp edges of the fish foiling the soft bun. But that’s not, unfortunately, to say you’re always safe with the fried stuff here. During one meal, I ordered three different fried items to wildly different results: One was fried perfectly, the other only so- so and one seemed not so much fried in oil as soaked in it. Yet this was the only problem these dishes faced: The flavors of, say, the fried onions with lemon and jalapeño (a simultaneously sweet, spicy, tart and refreshing side dish) were consistently unfussy, always spot on. (And adding crispy calamari to a plate of iceberg lettuce and blue cheese? Evil genius.)
Soups are lackluster (the lobster bisque’s dominant flavor is sweet corn; the clam in the clam chowder has been cooked to the consistency of rubber bands), and a jar of ceviche (Fish Bar is obsessed with jars, using them for the cocktails and beers as well) arrived mushy. Which is why in future visits I’ll stick to the stuff from the plancha grill. One night that consisted of a perfect piece of trout; another night it was three sweet, buttery shrimp. If you make a meal out of those dishes—adding, of course, a few good, cheap beers and a slice of Mindy Segal’s marvelous key lime pie—Fish Bar can be seriously good.