The Draw: Deftly cooked, straightforward seafood in a welcoming room
The Drawback: When dishes get fancy, they lose their charm
Don’t Miss: Charcuterie board, roasted fish, deep-fried starters, raw and grilled oysters, wedge salad
A small but mighty Argentine-style wood-fire grill is the heart of the eight-month-old little fish house near the corner of Larimer and 35th streets. It romances you with a whiff of wood smoke and drippings as you walk in the door, and its flavor runs through some of the menu’s best dishes. If you sit at the counter, right by the entrance, you can see the action. Crank wheels raise and lower a pair of iron grates over red coals and splits of wood. Oysters, vegetables, whole fish, bread, and steaks are shuttled onto and off of hot metal with the urgency and ease practiced by veteran line cooks who hold the calculus of a half-dozen dishes in their minds while bantering about everything but the food. One chilly spring night, as the grill masters wiped sweat away and laughed, chef Aniedra Nichols eyed the action from the bar area, a few feet down that counter, and admitted to one diner that if the zone by the grill was this hot now, July might present air-conditioning challenges. We’ll see.
Fish N Beer Oysterette’s menu is short and comfortably appealing, with just enough zigs and zags—salami with mussels, soy glaze on salmon collars, roasted bone marrow on grilled Brussels sprouts—to keep things interesting. This ain’t fancy food, but it’s tasty, an approach that drives Kevin Morrison’s restaurant group, KTM, which also owns Tacos, Tequila, Whiskey (aka Pinche Tacos). Neither Morrison’s history with Mexican food, though, nor Nichols’ nine years at Elway’s in Cherry Creek, provide clues about what to expect from Fish N Beer’s kitchen.
With its luncheonette sensibility and scale—the restaurant has counter seating and small booths—Fish N Beer reminds me of happy places like Saltie Girl in Boston or Blue Plate Oysterette in Santa Monica. The Denver restaurant is seafood-centric but not beach-shacky, and it’s a tad elevated but without pretense, wisely avoiding coastal blues and aquas in favor of concrete, tile, and exposed beams. The “N Beer” was presumably added because pretty much everything in town is “n beer” these days; after two years here, I wouldn’t be surprised to find a funeral parlor with eight local craft brews on tap.
Not that seafood and beer are a forced pairing. Nichols’ cooking leans toward the robust, and the seasonal beer list complements her food with a raspberry sour ale, a house French saison, and an assortment of hop monsters. I liked Station 26’s Collaboration Station White IPA—a bright, balanced brew that has witbier aromas—with a starter of piping-hot fried smelts and a tangy dill tartar sauce. The little fish were dredged and cooked perfectly. The beer-centric approach extends further to three cocktails spiked with varying brews, although the best I had was brew-free: the Herbed Highball, made with sage-infused tequila, lime, lemon bitters, and agave. It had an intensity that the bar’s happy hour margarita lacked.
Choose your poison—there’s also a small, smart selection of white wines—and order a starter like those smelts or the salmon collars, which are fin-sucking, omega-3-rich finger foods of the highest order. In fact, you can make a fine, reasonably priced meal here without venturing past the starters, salads, and oysters. The salmon collars are part of a charcuterie board that includes a delicious smoked fish spread on chewy grilled bread, apple mostarda, pickled vegetables, and a small heap of more grilled bread. At $16, it’s a silly-good deal, marred only by jarred tuna that wants to have the creaminess of the tonnato in vitello tonnato but is a bit too gritty and much too bland.
To order raw oysters, you pencil your choices from five or six varieties (East and West Coast in origin) on a little sheet and choose two sauces from a selection of mignonettes, cocktail sauces, and citrusy mixtures featuring ponzu or orange. At $2.50 an oyster, the house Double Dees from Virginia are a steal: deep-cupped, meaty, briny. Grilled oysters, meanwhile, come with a choice of two butters: a house version (garlic, parsley, and Parmesan, in the Rockefeller vein) or a devil version (tomato and mild chile de árbol).
For crab-cake lovers, there is a pair of quinoa crab cakes in which the quinoa is not much noted because the crab is generous and sweet. The cakes sit on remoulade and are topped with lightly pickled celery bits. The good news continues with a heap of steamed Prince Edward Island mussels in a broth that departs from the usual wine-and-garlic path for salumi undercurrents provided by ’nduja, the Calabrian salami paste now in vogue. The broth is to be sopped up with more grilled bread, of course. I also recommend the Louie wedge salad: An uptown riff on Thousand Island dressing adorns a nice, but not huge, portion of lettuce and a buttery scoop of crab.
Here and there, the kitchen overthinks dishes or pulls punches. Smoked bay scallops with Bloody Mary vinaigrette, bacon, and pickled peppers may have started as a riff on ceviche, but it ended up muddled. And any dish that uses the “Buffalo” designation—as in Buffalo blowfish tails—should gobsmack you with blue cheese funk and vinegary fire, yet this entrée was strangely bland. (Blowfish tails, I learned, require practice if one is to avoid a mouthful of stabbing bones; I nonetheless salute the restaurant’s emphasis on sustainable, underused fish.)
Another problematic entrée was the lobster-crab Louie roll, which the menu promised was “like a lobster roll, only better.” This raises the Jesuitical question of whether anything is better than a lobster roll, but let’s set that aside. The dish arrived looking handsome, with lots of filling stuffed into two buttered, toasted, top-split rolls. The setback came with the filling—too much vegetable crunch, not enough lobster. Also, it had an odd sweetness that was not shellfish-derived.
Elsewhere on the short list of mains, several dishes shine. A filet of barramundi was gently roasted, napped with a brown butter sauce, and accompanied by grilled broccolini under a mild anchovy dressing (one of eight available sides). My wife declared it one of the best plates of fish she’d eaten. Equally good, if a bit out of water in a fish house, was the coffee-rubbed New York strip, properly charred on that wood grill and rare, as ordered, within. I chose a side of grilled king trumpet mushrooms, which had an eggplant-y succulence and lots of smoke, brilliant with the righteously acidic kick of the accompanying chimichurri sauce. This is the sort of top-notch cooking you’re gratified to find in a casual environment, and the service had the cheery momentum from greeting to bill that suggests people happy in their work.
I was puzzled, though, on three visits, to find a lone dessert offering: a Brobdingnagian chocolate cream puff with chocolate mousse and almond brittle. It was fine, but pedestrian. (Last year, after reviewing Hop Alley, which is located next door to Fish N Beer, one of my few complaints was that the sparky Chinese newcomer did not turn its inventive kitchen on sweets at all; I’ve since learned that desserts are in the works there. Fish N Beer should take note.) A luncheonette, or an oysterette, for that matter, should be doing something proud with ice cream sundaes and pie, no?
These objections do not rise to the level of significant complaints. A few misfires aside, Fish N Beer—lively, smart, well-run, neighborly—is a welcome addition to the city. I’ll be back soon to see what Nichols’ grill wizards do with her seasonally shifting collections of sustainable sea creatures.