As if lining its display case with glistening slabs of crimson tuna and pearly white scallops wasn't enough of an irresistible lure, the tastemakers calling the shots at The District Fishwife are not afraid to reel in folks with the intoxicating aromas of beer-battered, deep-fried, finger-licking-good seafood.
Founder Fiona Lewis, who co-owns the combination retail shop/grab-and-go eatery with her spouse, Ben Friedman, launched the family-run enterprise last winter at Union Market (1309 Fifth St. NE).
The dual purpose stall, which resides in the less restaurant-intensive end of the highly selective shopping and dining complex, invites passersby to come chew the fat about sustainable eating. “We have some dedicated regulars who are in buying fish two to three times a week, who are focused on seafood and know what they're doing,” Lewis said of the diehards who routinely crowd the counter in search of farm-raised Atlantic salmon, imported Spanish mackerel (“Extremely delicious … and versatile in preparation,” she said.) and speckled sea trout (one of her personal favorites).
Then, there are those who could use a little help sniffing out something new to feast on.
“We're always happy to give cooking tips,” Lewis said of the helping hand her team extends to first-time fish handlers. That advice can range from preservation tips (Lewis is enamored with house-cured gravlax) to discussions about performing culinary magic with the assistance of different heat sources (pan searing, flame grilling, oven roasting).
She makes a point of sourcing her aquatic gold as locally as possible, employing a combination of trusted wholesalers (mostly East Coast-based) and simpatico sportsmen. “Dutch, our fisherman who hunts the local catfish and snakehead for us with his trusty bow and arrow [betcha Andrew Zimmern would give this guy a big, wet kiss], hasn't started fishing again yet,” she said, bemoaning the current dearth of blue catfish on her menu.
What she does keep plentifully stocked is what consumers keep asking for: local sheepshead, fresh tuna, dried salt cod (baccalà), squid ink and other marine delicacies.
Her greatest accomplishment to date has been securing green-lipped mussels indigenous to New Zealand. “They are much larger than the standard [Prince Edward Island] mussels favored around here, and are juicy, briny, succulent and delicious!” the Australian native said of the fortuitous but, sadly, short-lived score.
At the moment, tracking down aquacultured Asian seabass remains her great white whale.
“I love barramundi ... but I'm having trouble getting them,” the frustrated fishmonger said. She’s tracked down a reputable supplier operating out of New England (“which isn’t that far away,” she acknowledged), but has yet been unable to reel in the tank-raised, Omega-3-rich specimens she’s got her heart — and taste buds — set on.
Guess we’ll all have to fill the hours until that ship comes in devouring the toothsome offerings prepared by the skeleton kitchen crew.
Paper-lined baskets overflowing with beer-battered fish and chips anchor a short but crowd-pleasing carte also stocked with sandwiches (shrimp roll, salmon burger), salads (fried cod over greens) and snacks (fried oyster, shrimp or calamari baskets).
The main event summons twin spears of mouthwatering fish flanked by hearty potato wedges. Each filet of cod is shrouded in a buttery, salt-studded crust. The underlying meat is exquisitely flaky, easily tearing away from the savory breading with each snap of the incisors. A companion tartar sauce imparts a terrific sour pickle punch. But for maximum effect, plunge into house-made “Aussie ketchup” — a tomato-based accompaniment doctored with tangy wine and peppery allspice.
Lewis is also quite proud of her salmon burger.
Each pan-seared patty is forged from farmed Atlantic salmon that is ground in-house and lightly seasoned with horseradish, Dijon mustard, herbs and a smattering of panko. “It’s about 95 percent salmon,” she said.
I’m no math major. But I can tell you this thing is 100 percent delicious.
"This is not your usual sad analog of a hamburger," one dining companion said after sinking his teeth into the surprisingly meaty and very well composed production.
It all starts with a fluffy, hot pepper-spiked roll (bravo). Thinly sliced cucumber makes freshness a fait accompli. A judiciously applied dab of lemon aioli luxuriates the palate. And that patty? Well, it swims right to the head of the class, leaving everything else in its wake by delivering bite after bite of the zestiest, most terrifically moist, freshest catch of them all.
The curly fries (so good) are back in action when the fried oysters hit the table. But who needs additional starch when there’s cornmeal-crusted beauties to do away with?
The octet of cooked-to-order oysters sport a crunchy yet airy covering, underneath which resides plump, delectable oysters awash in natural brininess.
To wit, it sounds as if Lewis is now contemplating raiding the deli cases of the surrounding purveyors for additional inspiration.
“I've not thought of doing a shrimp burger. I'm going to have to test it out — maybe an Asian-influenced, shrimp-and-pork burger …” she replied when we went fishing for possible menu additions.
Not to mention nailing down those last fleeting touches of home.
“I still need to add a big glass jar full of pickled onions to get truly authentic,” she quipped, citing the signature flourish featured at the chippers of her youth.
Food Court is an ongoing series of semi-regular spot checks of new and evolving eateries with ties to Capitol Hill. The District Fishwife: 1309 Fifth St. NE; 202-543-2592; thedistrictfishwife.com
Average entree: under $12 ($). Open for lunch Tuesday through Sunday.
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