The table of junior fashion stylists at the table next to me are “so over drama, it’s not even funny.” I know this not because I’m eavesdropping (which I kind of am), but because the tables at Fishbar are set so close together, it’s hard not to be privy to your neighbours’ conversations. That’s how, a few weeks later, I’m drawn into the celebration for the impending back surgery of a chap who’s been waiting months to get operated on. “Are you in pain right now?” someone asks. “I'm on a lot of drugs,” he replies, polishing off his glass of sparkling wine. His wife doesn’t like her stool, though, it’s too tall, and her feet don’t reach the resting bar. The staff take notice, offer a better-fitting version and she’s soon proclaiming her shrimp cocktail, “to die for.”
While, unlike her, I might not be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for it, the wild-caught-shrimp cocktail, like so much about this latest addition to Ossington’s restaurant row, is a convivial treat. Fishbar was a long time coming, about six months behind schedule, but worth the wait. Owner William Tavares has a hit on his hands.
The first thing that strikes me about the long brick room with its distressed floors, simple wooden tables and industrial metal chairs is the smell: clean and fresh and just a bit saline from the ice-filled buckets of fresh oysters. It’s a reassuring aroma; the place smells like a seafood restaurant should. Willie Nelson’s cover version of Graceland segues into Elvis Costello at a volume that allows for easy conversation (and eavesdropping). A black angelfish in a shapely bowl patrols the bar like a silent mascot.
The blithe, tapas-style menu balances culinary ambition with good old-fashioned fun. For every sophisticated steelhead-trout rillette, smooth, gently seasoned and served in a little hinged jar with creamy cap of fat, there’s an Oyster Pogo: cornmeal-battered oysters on a stick with a tomatillo salsa that tastes like butter-pickle relish. It’s the kind of thing they might serve at an amusement park for billionaires.
Sommelier Jamie Duran has crafted an equally beguiling wine list with a strong by-the-glass component that is compelling without being exorbitant. Seafood-friendly varietals such as riesling, chenin blanc and torrontes (the fresh, aromatic Argentinian grape that's poised to be the next sauvignon blanc) are well represented. There's also an excellent gruner veltliner from Austria and a charismatic varietal from Puglia with the unfortunate name of Falanghina that I'd never heard of before, but intend to seek out from now on.
Oysters from Canada's east and west coasts are fresh, cool, cleanly shucked and require no help from the otherwise tasty sauces (cocktail, mignonette) they come with. House ceviche – halibut on the evening I tried it – is a bright, sharp little palate refresher that gains colour from a drizzle of coriander oil, heat from minced chilies and texture from a bristle of sweet-potato matchstick fries. A slightly shorter marinating time would have kept the fish from becoming a bit mushy, but the flavours are all in order. I also felt that the watermelon ponzu that accompanied some pretty pink squares of tuna, while flavourful and suggestive of watermelon, didn’t really communicate all that effectively with the sashimi.
A curtain of steam rises off the deeply piled bowl of PEI mussels. Shreds of bright-red tomato cling to the edges of the mussel shells and colour the savoury broth studded with spicy chorizo. If you’re sitting at the tall table in front of the wide-open windows while eating this, expect heads to turn as people walking by get a whiff. Ocean smelts, dead simple and ultimately fresh, are covered in a light tempura batter and fried in clean oil. All they need is a little sea salt and a squirt of fresh lemon juice and you can crunch the little suckers down whole, tiny heads and all. White anchovy filets, zippy with vinegar and slick from their own oil, are splayed across sourdough crostini. The considered addition of sweet, slowly caramelized onions and an herbaceous, intense olive gremolata result in a dish with the harmonic complexity of a Beach Boys ballad.
Vancouver-trained chef David Friedman is completely in his element when it comes to seafood. He seems less interested in meat dishes, however, which can seem like a bit of an afterthought. There's a decent grilled quail with hummus and pomegranate syrup that's tasty enough, but a little overcooked and under-seasoned. A tough flat-iron steak with an oily chimichurri sauce and prawn “hash” – an interesting idea that lacks flavour and seems to be an excuse to use up leftover shrimp – needs a re-think. Desserts are similarly underperforming. The scone-like base for a strawberry shortcake is tough and undercooked and the trio of house-made ice creams, honey, chocolate and goat cheese, need more intensity. Fortunately, such missteps are the exception and seem magnified in only light of the excellent cooking that marks the majority of the menu.
Ossington appears to have achieved a kind of culinary quorum where, in order to compete, restaurants must achieve a certain level of quality. It is a laudable achievement and one that, with any luck, will spread to less gastronomically gifted stretches of the city. In the meantime, let's celebrate what we've got. Grab a seat at Fishbar – in the window, at the bar or along the long wooden bench against the brick wall – get to know your neighbour and enjoy a meal in an environment where the food is as much fun as the scene.
Follow Chris Johns on Twitter @chrisandvinegar