Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A sea-saw affair

Pesca makes a play to position itself as the big fish downtown

Posted on Wed, Sep 30, 2009 at 4:00 AM

That downtown's most coveted dining location was left to idle away for years is astonishing. Developers lined up after Lee's Lakeside closed in July 2005, but legal squabbles delayed any restaurant opening until July of this year. Credit Manny Tato, owner of the Spice Modern Steakhouse, for finally reopening the doors to this inviting space; credit his interior designer for Pesca's purposefully nautical décor, evocative of a cruise ship restaurant. The place is huge, cold and cavernous and desperately needs something ' a waterwall or a colossal fishtank ' to break up all the open space. The most enticing facet of the dining room is the booths near the almost-floor-to-ceiling windows. With incomparable views of Lake Eola, these are the choicest seats in the house; we were fortunate enough to be seated in the last one.

Our server, while pleasant and well-meaning, was thoroughly inexperienced and couldn't seem to make heads or tails of the menu. Otoro nigiri was available, we were told, but ultimately failed to materialize. ('They just ran out,â?� was the explanation.) So we opted for the specialty chirashi ($15), a chef's selection of fish and rice. The fresh cuts of salmon (regular and smoked), tuna, escolar and kanikama (imitation crab) were aesthetically placed in a lacquered container along with avocado and cucumber slices. While we devoured all the fish, the bed of dense, grainy rice left much to be desired.

Smoked salmon carpaccio ($10) was a skillful deconstruction of lox and bagels. Wonderfully oaky Scottish smoked salmon topped with capers, egg slices and diced red onion came plated with a ball of herbed cream cheese and bagel chips. It was an effort to eat, but well worth it. Tuna tartare ($12), conversely, was a humdrum plating of cubed maguro dressed with a soy-onion vinaigrette and drizzled with spicy mayo.

On the cooked side, a number of fresh fish options are available (for the seafood-averse, steak, pasta and even jerk chicken are offered). Of the seafood mains, the crispy potato-encrusted flounder ($24) seemed intriguing. Resembling a McDonald's hash brown stuffed with a Filet-O-Fish, the dish was the antithesis of the lean, clean and simple chirashi, but delicious nonetheless. The Southern-inspired meal came atop a bed of roasted corn succotash and was slathered in a clam chowder sauce. For those in the mood for a heavy and comforting dinner, this is a filling choice. Also on the cooked and crispy side, the salmon skin roll ($6), one of a host of available rolls, is a salt-kissed pick-me-up; sesame- specked seaweed salad ($5) made an ideal accompaniment.

Pesca's wine list is extensive, but only a small number are available by the glass. Only three desserts were offered: New York'style cheesecake ($8), red velvet cake ($8) and a rich chocolate cake ($8), the latter of which proved adequate. For a seafood/sushi restaurant, I would've expected to see lighter desserts on hand ' a green tea ice cream or fruity sorbet would've made more suitable endings.

Pesca is a catch, to be sure (it's hard not to be when you're in such a prize locale), but that doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement. The restaurant needs to angle the depths of style and service, and get a skilled pastry chef in the kitchen, before it can entertain hopes of becoming the big fish downtown.

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