Here’s the ideal way to kick off a meal at Octo Fishbar, chef Tim McKee’s new St. Paul restaurant: Fill the center of the table with three or four items from the menu’s “chilled” section and marvel at the beauty, originality and around-the-world perspective that this kitchen brings to seafood.
“We’re not beholden to any particular cuisine, so long as it’s fish-minded,” McKee said. “We can play from all over the place.”
And they do. The cool shimmer of raw scallops is amplified against the puckery jolt of yuzu juice. Poke, so mainstream I fully expect it to appear at McDonald’s, feels reborn here, the velvety, scarlet-hued tuna as pristine as pristine can be, with Japanese-style pickles adding crunch and a cleansing acidic bite.
Leaving Asia for Latin America, McKee’s take on aguachile — right now it’s with firm, mild marlin — plays off avocado beautifully. Swordfish belly, almost buttery in its fatty luxuriousness, is cured with fermented chiles and finished with a light cold smoke, and it’s a glory to behold, a gorgeous foil to crunchy, bitter radishes.
It’s tempting to stop there and revel in such disciplined, highly skilled cooking. But that would be a mistake. Greater riches await.
How fortunate we are to be living in the McKee era. About a year ago, the chef who brought us La Belle Vie made an abrupt career switch, leaving his longtime role as culinary director at Parasole Restaurant Holdings — that’s the company behind Manny’s Steakhouse, Chino Latino, Salut Bar Americain and other popular hot spots — and signed on with seafood wholesaler the Fish Guys.
Yep, that was James Beard award-winning McKee, extolling the virtues of Thai snapper at the delivery doors of top Twin Cities restaurants. But he was only getting started.
As the senior vice president for development at the Fish Guys, McKee is responsible for pushing the business into new directions. His first initiative was to take over the two-story space that was most recently home to Heartland and re-imagine it as the Market House Collaborative.
What had been Heartland’s dining room is now a small but well-stocked source for some of the most impressive animal proteins available to Twin Cities area shoppers. Home cooks, if you haven’t been, go. One counter, christened Almanac Fish, is the long-awaited retail outlet for the Fish Guys. The other is a home for McKee favorite Peterson Craftsman Meats of Osceola, Wis., supplier of prime beef and pork, with poultry coming from Wild Acres in Pequot Lakes, Minn.
Heartland’s former market is now a gussied-up version of the Salty Tart, where chef/owner Michelle Gayer serves breakfast, lunch and a full complement of her dreamy baked goodies. Heartland’s former lounge is now Octo’s casual dining room, and Heartland’s former bar has been wisely expanded.
Those food halls that are all the rage? This is a small-scale version. The heart of the operation is Octo, and the vast world of oceanic creatures is, well, its oyster.
“What I like about Octo is the ability we have to go in whatever direction we want to go,” McKee said. “It’s such a gigantic palette for us to play with, and there’s no end to what we can do.”
What I find so fascinating, and so appealing, is the way McKee mines his memories for inspiration.
The Canadian bluegills (aka sunnies) done up in a shore-lunch style are a tribute to fishing with his grandfather. The ingenious grilled bread (which sounds like an oxymoron, but so isn’t) is deceptively simple — just Gayer’s gutsy sourdough, pulled into rough-hewed chunks, grilled until it’s nicely toasted, then slathered with a creamy, sea-urchin-infused butter. A complete delight, it’s based on McKee’s memory of an uni toast encountered at a Boston restaurant.
The voluptuous scrambled eggs, topped with chewy, thumbnail-size squid, are an homage to a dish he first encountered in Barcelona’s Boqueria market 15 years ago, “and has haunted me ever since,” he said. He’s added refinements, however. Instead of mixing chorizo and potatoes in the eggs as they were in Spain, he drizzles spiced-up chorizo fat on the finished eggs, and uses crispy, salty potato chips as a garnish. Genius.
McKee and executive chef Shane Oporto — an exciting young culinary talent — insert those refinements up and down their noshable menu.
A favorite is their take on pozole, the beloved Mexican soup. The green broth’s hints-of-springtime color — and intoxicating scent — comes from tomatillos, poblanos and cilantro. And instead of the usual chicken or pork, it’s fortified with the most glorious seafood scraps (usually from the crudo), along with clams, mussels and shrimp. All are carefully cooked just before it’s all pulled together. A dash of lime, a pop of a bright salsa verde, a handful of hominy, and wow. Instant classic.
“Usually, when the words ‘pozole,’ ‘James Beard award winner’ and ‘white guy’ are all mentioned in the same sentence, I run in the other direction,” said our server when I asked his opinion of the soup. “But not here.” Agreed.
Adventurous and affordable
The kitchen’s improvisational nature and sense of adventure also shine through. There’s a daily (and highly shareable) whole fish preparation that’s a blast to encounter. Even better is the reasonable fee ($12 for up to 12 ounces, with an additional $1 for each extra ounce) the kitchen charges for preparing any purchase made at the Almanac and Peterson cases.
One night, Almanac featured smallish, silvery porgy (a member of the bream family), and I purchased two. Within 15 minutes, they returned to the table. Each was treated differently — one was huskily glazed with miso, the other blanketed with colorful pickled vegetables and humming with bright vinegar accents. And the two delicious variations brought out different characters in the fish. Both could have sufficed as a main course for two, at a cost of about $28.
That’s another quality to admire about Octo, its affordability. Why not sit at the bar, get your hands dirty and dive into a pile of feisty salt-and-pepper shrimp ($14), beer-steamed mussels ($12), or gorgeous Creole-accent charbroiled oysters ($14)? Those fried chicken sandwiches that are all the rage? McKee turns out a tonkatsu-style catfish version ($14), the fish tantalizingly pearly in color and dense, almost oily in texture and encased in a crunchy fried coating.
There’s value here, too. Sure, $21 is a lot to pay for a lobster roll. But in McKee’s hands, what materializes is less of a sandwich and more of an edible sculpture that rejects the familiar celery-tarragon route in favor of a Japanese interpretation. There’s plenty of succulent poached lobster, but it’s dressed in umami-laden Kewpie mayo (with a bit of miso for added punch) and tossed with crunchy Japanese pickles.
That wonder of a salad is spooned inside a split, liberally buttered and toasted bun from Gayer’s ovens, a brioche-like wonder that’s best described as a squat hot dog bun. It’s served with crisp, skinny and ridiculously addictive fries.
The raw bar’s seafood towers don’t come cheap, but they’re worth the investment. They’re Leviathan things, heaped with clams, briny oysters, meaty crab claws, tender mussels and other undersea delights. The astonishing freshness is an outward sign of the kitchen’s proximity to the Fish Guys’ worldwide reach.
McKee commissioned St. Paul potter Kevin Caufield to create tableware of distinction for the restaurant, and that’s exactly what he did; the towers are the most stunning examples of his handiwork. The good news is that Almanac will be stocking items from his Caufield Clay Works.
Beyond the oceans
To their credit, McKee and Oporto aren’t rigid purists, meaning that non-seafood fans have a place at the table. Two favorites are sourced directly from Andy Peterson’s pastures. One is a fat-capped pork chop (resting on the creamiest grits, ever) from a Berkshire-Yorkshire crossbreed that has to be tasted to be believed.
Another is a mammoth (as in 2 pounds), tender and intensely flavorful rib-eye that’s nurtured on a charbroiler grill. Instead of resting for a few moments, post-grilling, it’s placed over an impromptu smoker, allowing the juices to pull themselves back into the meat, followed by a light tickle of smoke.
A finish of preserved mushrooms accentuates the beef’s earthiness. Even better? That heavyweight portion yields A-plus leftovers.
On paper, the pie-only desserts sound basic. But Gayer makes each one memorable, whether it’s a tart Key lime custard buried under meringue, a devilishly rich banana cream or a blissfully not-too-sweet pecan.
Sure, a few quibbles. A Bolognese with octopus, a concept that merits celebration, was sublime on one visit, grievously overseasoned the next; ditto with a few other dishes. A swordfish bánh mì was uncharacteristically dull. And while this didn’t occur often, a seafood restaurant shouldn’t have a down-on-the-docks smell.
If Octo Fishbar had a one-word theme, it might be “evolve,” because it’s never quite the same restaurant. Seemingly with the tides, dishes disappear, tied to seasonality. One example is blowfish tails, done up as Buffalo-style wings, their spicy intention heralded in their peppery scent. So good, and such a bummer that they’re gone.
McKee is forever adding new draws. A weekly happy hour (4 to 6 p.m.) just started, featuring $2.50 oysters, a few steamed buns, the jerk-style chicken wings from his just-closed Smalley’s Caribbean Barbeque in Stillwater (“because I just can’t let go,” he said with a laugh) and a handful of peel-and-eats.
All winter long, he’s graciously invited St. Paul Farmers Market vendors — and a different St. Paul chef, to prepare a pop-up brunch — to sell their wares in the restaurant’s roomy quarters on Saturday mornings. When the season ends on April 21, McKee hopes to launch some kind of weekend lunch or brunch program.
Oh, and when Long Lake-based Birch’s on the Lake opens its brewery in the remaining Market House Collaborative space in early July, McKee & Co. will be preparing its small pub menu. Exciting, right?
“It sounds corny, but to me, the creation of a restaurant is such a special thing,” McKee said.
“You put so much of yourself into it. Your heart, and your soul. That’s why it’s so meaningful.”