Talk about a smart business plan. Penn Avenue Fish Company in the Strip does a brisk business serving delicious undersea lunchtime specialties and sushi to crowds of customers from the immediate surrounding businesses as well as Downtown employees and folks working up Penn and Liberty Avenues into Lawrenceville and Bloomfield. So when the restaurant expanded their territory, they made the right decision to put their new location in the middle of Downtown, securing the hearts and appetites of many of their already loyal Downtown-based customers, as well as ensuring a whole horde of new followers.
Favorites of the Strip location, such as the sushi and the fish tacos, made the trip into Downtown as well. In addition, they added a dinner menu for Wednesday through Saturday service. The inventive and tantalizing lunch options easily transformed into upscale (but not uppity) dinnertime offerings.
The interior of Penn Avenue Fish Company Downtown feels like a combination sushi bar and cafe. It’s long and narrow, but the design keeps it from feeling cramped, with brightly colored walls and flooring. Warm overhead lights supplement the natural light coming in from the entrance, and a few well-chosen items of aquatic-themed wall decor give the place an appropriate dose of seafood restaurant without falling into the realm of the cheesy.
Me and my dining companion for the evening, the ever reliable and lovely Kait, started off our first visit to the restaurant with a bang. Grouper tacos, tastefully cooked in Cajun seasoning and bundled with firm, juicy slices of red and green bell pepper, hit all the right notes for a fish taco. The slices of fish were substantial and spicy, and the thin layer of salsa on top gave each bite an additional kick. They didn’t even skimp on the avocado, and the thick slices offered a cool compliment to the overall heat of the rest of the ingredients. We both agreed that were it lunchtime, we could have each eaten two and called it a day. They’re not big, but they’re satisfying.
When rolled sushi is available, I want to eat it. Can’t explain why, but even mediocre sushi is a temptation for me. Something about the combination of salty soy sauce with the sticky neutral rice and the fishy, chewy nori wrapping… I just go mad for it. Penn Avenue Fish Co. gave me plenty to get excited about. To accompany our other appetizer, Kait and I split a spicy tuna roll. It was just about perfect in proportion and preparation. It had a little of the heat that the grouper tacos had, but it was balanced by the cooler flavors of the rice and nori. The little slice of asparagus in each piece was just enough to lend a little taste of green without stealing attention away from the tuna.
I’m usually the salmon fiend, but I ceded that role to Kait this time around. She ordered salmon that was cooked in jerk seasonings and served upon a generous pile of asparagus and black beans and topped with a few lush sprigs of fresh greens. The ingredients rested in a shallow pool of mango sauce. The dish was a perfect blend of the traditional salmon dinner of many, many seafood houses and the eclectic and innovative alterations that are typical of the restaurant’s lunchtime fare. The jerk seasoning worked surprisingly well on the salmon, which was cut in two thick, juicy fillets that were nearly mashable, they were so tender. In deciding where the real surprise lay, both Kait and I were torn between the black beans and the fresh greens. The black beans were plump and mildly savory, soaking up much of the citrus flavor of the dressing. But the greens were also surprisingly effective, their fresh, earthy flavors grounding the dish somewhere between land and sea. A little garden, a little ocean, it was such a fantastic combination of flavors, each present in every bite.
Swordfish is a hearty, hearty fish, but it can also be considerably oilier than its counterparts on a dinner menu, which is why I was pleased by the dish served up by Penn Avenue. Coupled with crunchy fresh asparagus and tender chunks of sweet potato, the fish stood out for its grilled characteristics. The smokey flavor of the fish worked really nicely with the starchy sweetness of the potatoes. Fresh greens once again made an appearance, but their flavors didn’t have the pronounced impact that they had in Kait’s dish. The aioli dressing was mild enough to not interrupt the smokey-sweet combination of fish and potatoes, but it gave a velvety finish to each forkful.
If I seem to be a bit generous in my praise, it’s because Kait and I had a near idyllic experience with our first visit to Penn Avenue Fish Company Downtown. Our server was bubbly and attentive, our seating was comfortable, and the environment was unbelievably pleasant considering how many people were coming and going through the narrow confines of the interior space. Another definite plus: The restaurant is BYOB, so feel free to bring a bottle of wine or a six pack to share. We weren’t charged a corkage fee, but double check with the server to be sure.
I’ve noticed that the overall reception to the new location has been positive, but I have read minor quibbles regarding price, to which I can merely say “Boo.” You have to be prepared to pay for ingredients as fresh and top-notch quality as these, and Penn Avenue doesn’t even gouge you like some of the more upscale seafood establishments do. Both of our dinners were just about twenty dollars, but the tacos and sushi were both below ten. Considering the amount and quality of the food, we were in no mind to complain.
Penn Avenue Fish Company Downtown is a creation of a very good and very practical idea: Keep doing well what you’re doing well, just add a new place to do it in. Adding a dinner service but keeping the casual, inventive qualities that made the original location a must visit restaurant was the right idea. Any changes that are made heretofore are guaranteed to show the same amount of care and thoughtfulness.
I, for one, can’t wait to make it down there sometime for lunch. I wonder if they do the same Tuesday All-You-Can-Eat Tacos deal from the original location…