Downtown Cleveland is a long way from the bayou. But suddenly, between Fat Fish Blue and the similarly conceived Red Fish Cajun Grille and Bar, we have more jambalaya around these parts than a hungry man can shake a stick at.
Homegrown Fat Fish Blue, founded by Clevelander Steve Zamborsky in 1993, opened at its current location in early 1998 after spending its first two years in the Warehouse District and being closed for a time. Red Fish washed onto the North Coast this past August and is the sixth location for a Phoenix-based chain that also runs the country's largest franchise of T.G.I. Friday's. In addition to their similar menus of Cajun-style cooking, both "fishes" offer late-night hours, a busy bar, and live blues performances in the evenings, in an atmosphere that, they claim, evokes the Big Easy. But when the yearning for a bowl of black beans and rice hits, how do the two restaurants compare?
To find out, I gathered two companions and, over the course of a single weekend, we sampled an assortment of traditional dishes, and a bit of the atmosphere, from both spots.
Dim, noisy, crowded, noisy, bustling, and noisy: That about sums up the ambience at Fat Fish Blue, where we were seated, not in the cavernous main dining area (where it was really noisy), but in a small back room, almost like a side porch, overlooking Ontario Avenue. Despite the room's lack of decor -- a few paper fans hanging from the ceiling was about the extent of it -- the general party atmosphere was infectious. We got a chuckle out of the fat little fishy stickers and plastic spiders nestled among our flatware, as well as the blue rubber sharks patrolling our drinks. However, we were less amused by the poorly organized menu -- an oversized, laminated sheet with entrées and side dishes on one side and appetizers and desserts on the other -- which had us repeatedly flipping back and forth between sides to make our choices. Entrée prices are modest, with most dishes in the $8 to $13 range. Service by our just-hired waiter was friendly and flirtatious, although he committed the major faux pas of bringing our entrées only minutes after our appetizers were delivered. The bar scene, and the music scheduled to begin later in the evening, seemed to be one of the main attractions here, with only a minority of the patrons looking to get fed and the remainder looking to get . . . well, let's just say it seemed like they were hoping to make new friends.
By comparison, the atmosphere at Red Fish was relatively sedate. Lighting was adequate and the noise level, if not cloister-like, was low enough for us to make out the recorded blues playing in the background. We were seated in a spacious booth in the main dining room, where our fellow diners included couples, groups of sports fans on their way to the Cavs game, and families with young children. Things also seemed pretty laid-back across the hallway in the Voodoo Lounge, where the live music had not yet begun. In T.G.I. Friday's fashion, the walls and ceiling were teeming with interesting N'awlins-style memorabilia, including a huge Mardi Gras mask. We missed the playthings in our napkins, but we couldn't wait to don the strands of shiny plastic beads that were draped over our drinks. We also liked the large, annotated menu, with descriptions of Cajun culinary terms written in the margins. Prices are moderate, with most entrées falling in the $13 to $17 range. Service was definitely on terms dictated by our waitress, who had made an art of avoiding her customers. When we needed her, we practically had to stand up -- beads and all -- and whistle.
Just for fun, we began our meals each night with a Hurricane, a spiked "iced tea," and a liquored-up lemonade. Fat Fish Blue's specialty drinks -- in 20-ounce, take-home Hurricane glasses -- were very good, with a generous pour of alcohol balanced with not-too-sweet mixers. The Classic French Quarter Hurricane had an assertive rum punch to it; the smooth kick of Jack Daniel's whiskey was easy to spot in a Lynchburg Lemonade; and the Delta Tea was a deliciously smooth but deadly blend of vodka, gin, rum, triple sec, sour mix, and cola. Fee was a hefty $6.25 a hit.
At Red Fish, drinks were smaller and less expensive (although the prices -- in the $5 range -- weren't on the menu), and we didn't get to keep the glass. Blue Looziana Lemonade, with Absolut Citron and Blue Curacao, had an odd sour-apple taste; Fall off the Porch Iced Tea, with vodka, rum, gin, and tequila, had an aggressively boozy flavor; and the rum-drenched Hurricane, ordered on the rocks, was very sweet, with a lingering medicinal aftertaste that we could only describe as "baby aspirin." (The sickeningly sweet Hurricane is a staple of the tourist trade in the Big Easy; from that perspective, Red Fish's was probably the more authentic, if not the more refreshing, of the two versions.)
For starters, we sampled oysters, red beans and rice, and fried green tomatoes. Both spots did well with the shellfish: A half-dozen raw oysters at Red Fish were fresh, icy cold, and delicious, while a big pile of cornmeal-breaded fried oysters at Fat Fish were crisp, crunchy, and satisfying. Both kitchens also turned out respectable fried green tomatoes. We loved the natural sweet-and-tart flavor of the tomatoes at Fat Fish Blue and the lagniappe (Cajun French for "a little something extra") of boiled collard greens and chunky corn relish on the side. But we thought the tomato slices' thick cornmeal breading was bland. At Red Fish, the tomatoes' light, crunchy, tempura-like breading was bright and peppery; its zing made up for the boring "relish" of undressed shredded lettuce and tired chopped red tomato that accompanied the dish. We were disappointed in the red beans and rice at both restaurants: Thin and soup-like, neither dish seemed authentic. Fat Fish Blue's version was also notably underseasoned, despite containing bits of spicy Andouille sausage that weren't mentioned on the menu -- a potentially unhappy surprise for vegetarians.
The Main Events
The difference between the two restaurants was most notable in their entrées. While neither came close to replicating authentic Cajun cuisine, most of the food at Red Fish demonstrated some complexity of flavor. At Fat Fish Blue, on the other hand, flavors were strangely subdued. Consider, for example, the jambalaya -- a traditionally hearty dish of meats, rice, and sautéed onion, celery, and green pepper, jazzed up with herbs, spices, and a fiery blend of cayenne, black, and white ground pepper. At both restaurants, the rice had been cooked separately from the meats and seasonings, resulting in a relatively thin dish with flavor concentrated in the "sauce." Fat Fish Blue's version was mildly seasoned, with a modest amount of tender chicken and meaty Andouille sausage. Red Fish's take was more robust, with loads of shrimp, crawfish, sausage, smoked ham, and chicken, and flavorful bits of the traditional cooked onion, green pepper, and celery, with a defiantly peppery kick. However, it was swimming in a tomato-based sauce, and despite all the other savories, the predominant flavor note was red tomato.
Red Fish's crawfish etouffée, a spicy stew of shellfish, onion, celery, green pepper, and seasonings, thickened with roux and served around rice, was well-balanced, fresh, and flavorful -- the weekend's only true winner. Fat Fish Blue's version, on the other hand, had a bitter flavor, as though the roux had been burned, and was notably greasy. In a blindfolded taste-test, we might have mistaken it for a poorly prepared Asian shrimp-and-rice dish.
Nor was either restaurant able to turn out a respectable blackened dish. Bayou Blackened Beef at Fat Fish Blue had a wonderfully smoky, well-carbonized crust with a peppery taste. But the meat itself, a very thin cut of medium-rare Delmonico steak, was riddled with gristle and fat. The competition's Blackened Redfish was lightly sprinkled with a zingy Cajun spice blend, but the half-fish -- complete with tail, skin, and more than a few bones -- had been pan-seared, not blackened, and was very dry, especially near the tail.
As for desserts, skip 'em at either spot. A slice of honest pecan pie -- crisp nuts floating on a layer of sweet, buttery filling, in a thin, crunchy crust -- is a culinary joy. But not at Red Fish, where the gooey blend of nuts, chocolate bits, and bourbon, in a thick, undercooked shortbread-like crust, was way over the top. Bananas Foster -- traditionally made with lengths of buttery caramelized bananas arranged beside a scoop of vanilla ice cream and topped with warm sauce -- was also poorly executed at both spots, with slices of cold, apparently uncooked banana swimming in bowls of melted ice cream. Nor were the chocolate creations any more memorable. Mississippi Mud Pie at Fat Fish Blue was nothing more than a gigantic wedge of layered ice creams on a crushed-cookie crust with a drizzle of chocolate sauce; Bayou Chocolate Pie at Red Fish was an uninteresting layer of heavy chocolate-pudding-like mousse on a thin, hard brownie crust.
And in Conclusion . . .
Perhaps the management at Fat Fish Blue and Red Fish figure Midwesterners -- not knowing their tasso from a hole in the ground -- are easy marks for mediocrity. Or maybe they trust that their proximity to the Gund and the Jake, and a busy bar scene, can make up for disappointing food. But for whatever reason, neither of these casual eateries serves superior grub.
Red Fish -- while not without significant shortcomings -- seems to do somewhat better with its food, mostly because the kitchen seems willing to throw in some seasonings. Fat Fish Blue has its moments, notably in its tasty fried green tomatoes, but on the whole, its offerings are bland -- and that's the last thing one should expect from Cajun food.
In terms of energy level, however, Fat Fish gets the nod -- especially if your idea of fun includes plastic toys, noise, and a bustling bar. Red Fish is bright and pleasant, with more opportunity for conversation, but is relatively staid. Neither spot gets points for value or service.
Do either of these restaurants recreate a sense of New Orleans? No more than a visit to TomorrowLand resembles a trip to Mars. For the authentic bayou experience, there is apparently only one alternative, and that's an actual trip to Louisiana. Winter is coming. It's just one more reason to head south.
Elaine T. Cicora can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.