It's not easy being a downtown restaurant, what with having to convince the region's far-flung inhabitants to haul their asses back into town at the end of a long day, only to have to scout out reasonably priced parking before anteing up for dinner. So a spot like Cleveland's Fat Fish Blue -- which has managed not just to survive but to thrive since its 1998 opening just off Public Square -- is obviously doing something right.
In fact, the casual Cajun eatery and blues venue has been doing lots of things right, from offering convenient $2 parking in the garage next door to booking some of the region's best musicians, including the legendary Robert Lockwood Jr. and his All-Star Band, who give a free performance each Wednesday night, starting at around 8.
Those who like to kick up their heels won't be disappointed by the lively ambiance either. Not that one would expect a restaurant spread out across a former automotive service garage to be especially sedate, but in terms of capturing a laid-back, bon temps vibe, Fat Fish could write the manual, what with its brown-paper table-toppers and tile-covered floors that shrug off any notion of formality, and the blue shop-wipe "napkins" and dangling work lights that wink slyly at the building's original function.
Friendly staffers do their part to contribute to the party-like atmopshere too, from the greeters to the seaters to the enthusiastic (if occasionally inattentive) servers. And should there be any lingering doubt about patrons' expected role in all this, note the little plastic toys tucked in amid the flatware, or the clutch of crayons snuggled down among the bottles of hot sauce that sit upon each table.
Of course, playtime becomes even more jolly when it's well lubricated by something from the shiny menu of colorful, boozy concoctions. For starters, there are giant Hurricanes sporting blue plastic sharks, fruity martinis garnished with Pop Rocks, and a raft of premium bottled beers, including Dixie Brewing Company's Blackened Voodoo Lager and Crimson Voodoo Ale. "Specialty" numbers like Delta Tea, Gator Juice, and Sex on the Bayou come by the pint, at $8.25 per hit -- though refills are "only" $4.75, and lucky imbibers get to take home the logo-emblazoned glass. No wonder a recent Saturday evening found the joint jumpin' with zany bachelorettes and their entourages, as well as with the usual noisy assortment of couples, families, and music-lovers, all eager to have some fun.
Should all this revelry work up an appetite, Fat Fish's kitchen stands at the ready, with a big, all-day and into-the-night retinue of mostly southern-inspired offerings, from homey dishes like jambalaya and gumbo to such upscale creations as a "surf & turf" pairing of filet mignon and barbecued shrimp.
While the organization of the oversized laminated menu still leaves a little something to be desired -- the decision to put starters and desserts on one side and entrées on the other practically gar-on-tees a heap o' back-and-forth flippin' -- the kitchen, now under the supervision of Executive Chef Adam Klein, has traveled some distance since our visits in 1999, when the food was memorable only for its blandness; in contrast, recent stops uncovered a number of dishes that hummed with bold, well-balanced flavors. (Klein also oversees the menu at Fat Fish Blue's second location in Newport, Kentucky, which opened last summer.)
Among the best dishes, in fact, were the traditional Cajun standard-bearers, gumbo and jambalaya -- the first a dark, thick mélange of rice, crawfish, sliced andouille sausage, onions, green pepper, and okra that displayed as much flavor as heat, and the second an equally zippy blend of golden turmeric-seasoned rice, chicken, andouille, peppers, and onions, which, while unusually soupy, still left our taste buds tingling with delight. Both dishes can be had as apps or entrées; paired up with an order of the dense, kernel-flecked cornbread, even the starter-sized portions could make a rib-sticking, inexpensive meal.
Sturdy Cajun lasagna was a good bet too, with its alternating strata of pasta, cheese, ground beef, and chopped collard greens, interspersed with bits of chicken and andouille sausage; while the heat factor was negligible, a tangy swoosh of homemade Creole sauce helped to sharpen the flavor profile. Our taste-testers mostly dug the pulled-pork platter as well, with its smoky load of succulent, shredded meat. On the side, vaporous mashed sweet potatoes tasted candy-sweet, thanks largely to a golf-ball-sized orb of molasses-and-cinnamon butter; unfortunately, though, a cheerful-looking pile of frozen green beans, red pepper, and orange-and-yellow carrot slices proved to be mostly eye candy, with a strange, cardboardy texture and a sorrowful lack of seasoning.
In keeping with the bayou theme, the menu offers plenty of fish and shellfish options, ranging from a one-pound portion of boiled crawdads to crabcakes and pecan-crusted catfish. A starter of battered-and-fried catfish "lollipops" (bite-sized nuggets served on slender wooden skewers), for instance, tasted fresh and mild, and a quick dip into the side serving of creamy, jalapeño-spiked mayo added pronounced but not aggressive sass. Unfortunately, we were less enthusiastic about a pair of not-so-soft soft-shelled crabs: Neither small crustacean offered more than a bite or two of meat, and their only discernible flavor resulted from a heavy cornmeal breading.
An oyster po' boy, too, rated a shrug, mostly because -- tucked inside a grilled hoagie roll paved with shredded lettuce, thinly sliced tomato, and a wisp of tartar sauce -- the battered, deep-fried oysters seemed excessively soggy and limp.
An unintentional serving of "food for thought" accompanied our collard greens, too: On the night when the greens were served as part of our soft-shelled crab platter, they sang out with the snappy flavors of vinegar and black pepper. But several days later, when we ordered them à la carte with the po' boy, they tasted bitter and flat. Can y'all say "inconsistency"?
On a more upbeat note, we have a shiny new strand of Mardi Gras beads -- along with a few extra pounds, probably -- to show for our forays into the dessert menu, where we discovered a delightful, deep-dish version of classic pecan pie and an admirable foursome of fish-shaped beignets, served fresh and warm with pools of honey and chocolate sauce for dipping.
As for those beads, they arrived draped across the formidable Carpetbagger, a towering "sack" of semisweet chocolate, filled with cubes of white cake, layers of Godiva white chocolate mousse, and a scattering of blueberries, sliced strawberries, and kiwi. Sure, the confection could have used a few more berries (the photo on the dessert menu, after all, showed a lot more fruit than the real thing boasted) and a little less of the slightly greasy mousse. But enjoyed with mugs of muscular, chicory-enhanced coffee, it's the kind of dessert that could make your entire party stand up and cheer.
And since you're on your feet anyway, give a shout out to Chef Adam too. After all, Fat Fish Blue has always been about the blues, the booze, the fun, and the food; and if that final element has traditionally come in last, today it seems to be catching up fast.
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