Desert Fish

by Christie Chisholm, LocalFlavor Magazine, March 2011

Albuquerque needs a restaurant like Desert Fish. If there’s any doubt, just walk into the Northwest-themed seafood eatery for lunch or dinner service any day of the week. Within a mere two months of opening, Desert Fish is almost always packed to its steel, unfinished wood and blue-walled gills (I just can’t help myself). Albuquerque has spoken: The people want fish.

Actually, the people want really good fish, the kind that tastes like it was pulled out of an ocean a few hours before being slid onto their plates, the kind that’s rare in our landlocked burg. And that’s exactly the kind Desert Fish serves up. 

I had my own special kind of reawakening at the restaurant. I’d been a vegetarian for four and a half years, but I’d dabbled in the idea of going back to fish for about half that time. After stealing samples of my lunchtime dining companion’s cioppino—a stew filled with shrimp, Dungeness crab, salmon, clams and mussels in a gorgeously savory tomato broth—I realized I’d suddenly become a pescatarian, because there wasn’t a chance I was stopping there. 

When I returned for dinner a few days later, I ordered the fish and chips. Desert Fish’s version features two hefty strips of beer-bettered Alaskan cod perched atop a bed of fries—you get to choose between sweet potato, truffle and house. Rounding out the plate are three green-chile hushpuppies, tartar sauce and a crisp, red bell pepper-laced side of coleslaw. I, of course, chose the sweet potato fries for my fish’s bedding, and they, like the rest of the meal, were wonderful. Lightly crisp on the outside yet tantalizingly tender on the inside and sprinkled with large flakes of sea salt, they’re possibly the best sweet potato fries I’ve tasted. And the cod—oh, the cod. Perfectly cooked, the fish flakes apart in large chunks but retains its juices; and the beer-battered casing is neither mushy nor crunchy, striking a hard-to-achieve balance between the worlds of soft and firm. 

In fact, everything about Desert Fish’s menu is about balance. On the most obvious level, its items run the spectrum from easily affordable to special-occasion expensive. For example, you can get a bowl of clam chowder for $5, various oysters from the ice-clad oyster bar for $2 to $3 a pop, the Mojito ceviche (rock cod marinated in lime juice, light rum, sugar and mint and served with house-made blue corn chips) for $8, the cioppino for $22 or the Caesar seafood platter (with two Dungeness crab clusters, six oysters and a half pound of cocktail shrimp atop romaine lettuce spears with Caesar dressing, cocktail sauce and drawn butter—whew) for $32. Obviously, most of the menu floats in seafood territory, but there is a grilled tarragon chicken and a grilled rib eye steak au poivre for the meat eaters. And there are a couple of veggie-friendly options, too—mushroom kabobs grilled with other fresh vegetables, a green salad in a honeyed balsamic vinaigrette and the various fries options are the only pure vegetarian items, but a couple other dishes would do well with substitutions.

The most delightful way balance is found on the menu, though, is through individual dishes. Everything my dining companions and I tasted succeeded in finding this balance of flavor and texture. The cioppino’s broth manages a touch of sweetness amid its savoriness. The breaded cod in the fish and chips keeps its structure and is still succulent. A flourless chocolate torte—draped in homemade whipped cream, strawberry slices and mint leafs—is almost mousse-like in its texture, resisting the urge so many similar tortes have to be overpoweringly dense and rich. And to top it off, Desert Fish serves coffee from what I believe is the best roaster in the state—Red Rock Roasters—which always provides a perfectly balanced cup. 

Desert Fish is 28-year-old Tessa Zemon’s first entrepreneurial endeavor, and the place first opened its doors on December 10. A great measure of its success is obviously due to Executive Chef Carrie Eagle. Originally hired as Desert Fish’s sous chef, Eagle was plunged into the position after the previous executive chef left four days before the restaurant was slated to open (all Zemon and Eagle will say about the departure is that it “wasn’t the right fit”). After 15 years of experience in the food service industry (which include helping open JC’s New York Pizza Department and most recently working as a catering chef for Zinc, Seasons and Savoy), Eagle’s used to working under pressure, and Desert Fish opened without any big setbacks. 

Changing executive chefs at the last minute wasn’t the restaurant’s only hurdle. Originally, Zemon co-owned Desert Fish with Peter Martin, who has a long history as a restaurant manager as well as a musician and booker. Martin is from Seattle, and the concept for the restaurant was his. The two met while working at a restaurant in Santa Fe—Martin as the general manager and Zemon as a server and bartender who also dealt some with the financial side of the business—and they designed Desert Fish together. But due to family issues, Martin moved back to Seattle at the end of January, and now Zemon is the sole owner. “We were prepared,” she says of the transition. “We’re moving forward well.”

You wouldn’t know there had ever been a hitch when walking into Desert Fish, which is split into two equally elegant dining areas. The larger main room, which seats 100, features sea-blue booths that wrap around white-topped tables, a large, full-service bar and a stage for bands, which play at least three nights a week. When Zemon and Martin were developing the space with architect Jeff Chiavetta of Daily Design, live music was a priority for them, and they designed the acoustics accordingly. The second space is a quieter 50-seat dining area, which can be separated from the main room by three sliding, wood-paneled doors. Desert Fish also has a patio that faces Central, and it will be put into use once the weather warms.

Zemon and Eagle have other plans for the restaurant, too, which include growing their menu and their wine list, already boasting 60 offerings from small, water-adjacent vineyards around the globe. Eventually, Eagle wants to use as much local produce as possible in her ingredients. “I have every intention of using Los Poblanos,” she says, referring to the local organic farm with community-sponsored agriculture. One thing that will stay the same, though, is Desert Fish’s seafood, which is all wild-caught and flown in fresh from Ocean Beauty and Seattle Fish.

If the large number of people flooding through Desert Fish’s doors continues, Zemon and Eagle’s goals may not be far off. Zemon seems relieved by how receptive the city has been to the restaurant. “You put in so much work, and you wonder, will people like the product?” she says. “Taking a concept unique to Albuquerque is scary and risky. ... But the community has embraced us.”