Extremism in defense of tastiness is no vice.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Restaurant Review: El Pescador

There's no two ways about it. The rare Kumamoto oyster, halibut special, or quality fish fry aside, Madison is woefully bereft of good seafood. Edible ocean and shellfish can be difficult to find for under $30 a plate, and are often disappointing even at those rarefied prices. It is likely because of this void that, as the air crisps and the leaves turn throughout our Midwestern city, a Mexican seafood restaurant has improbably become one of the most talked about restaurants in town.

For the most part, El Pescador lives up to its quickly garnered reputation as a reasonably priced destination for good seafood, but locals might not want to trade in their sausage and sauerkraut for ceviche and camarones just yet.

The environment does little to foster confidence. Just inside, an enormous Corona advertisement hangs conspicuously from a fish net. It's an off-putting first impression, and looks uncomfortably close to what I might imagine from a Cinco de Mayo celebration at Red Lobster. Other features of the high-ceilinged dining room are several paintings of fishing boats, various nautical bric-a-brac, and a whole lot of empty space. One neither expects nor desires white tablecloths, of course, but something a little closer to Laredo's would go a long way. At that Madison staple, the festively painted murals are inauthentic, but they do at least evoke the feel of a Mexican restaurant, norteamericano style. There, the atmosphere is one of enthusiasm that is, at worst, amusingly kitchy. At El Pescador, the environment is neither authentic nor enthusiastic. The sparse trappings come off as lazy.

Service is casual and inconsistent. During my first visit on a slow weekday evening, there was no need to turn our table, but I still felt rushed on both drink and food orders. While our server answered questions about the menu, it seemed almost a burden, and he was neither particularly personable nor professional. Another server was much friendlier and more attentive; she became even more amiable when my companion and I began to speak with her in Spanish. A visit on a busier evening offered a different waiter and no questions about the menu, but the same curt service of the first. I was collectively disappointed. Other casual Mexican restaurants try harder: Laredo's is consistently spirited, Taqueria Guadalajara personal and sincere.

My hopes, then, weren't terribly high as I perused the list of Margaritas and Mexican beers and sampled the obligatory (and obligatory tasting) chips and salsa. Of course, the praise being heaped upon El Pescador has had little to do with service or decor, and the restaurant's food shows that the kitchen shares little of the dining room's apathy.

Arroz al pescador, a mildly spicy rice plate featuring several types of seafood, was a strong showcase for their work. My first taste was a scallop, a litmus test of a mollusk that can be rendered soapy and inedible by improper storage or rubbery and unappealing by overcooking. I took a bite. The scallop was moist and tender, and its sweetness was there beneath the mild spiciness of the rice. This was a good sign.

The clams avoided similar pitfalls, and I also enjoyed several generously sized shrimp, properly cooked and seasoned. Their full flavor was nicely accented by the dish's spice, and their firm, fleshy texture was a good counterpoint to the rice. The mussels stood out in particular. Large, succulent, and perfectly cooked, these unadorned bivalves sung in their shells. Or they would have, had I not been so busy devouring them. While the seafood was terrific, the rice was flavorful but mostly superfluous. With the exception of the shrimp, the other mariscos would have been just as delicious alone, and it is a pity that the complete dish never became more than the sum of its parts. Nonetheless, the straightforward dish was altogether successful.

The caldo siete mares shared the rice's focus. Here, the clams, scallops, calamari, and shrimp were joined by fish and crab legs in an enormous bowl, punctuated by a claw grasping a lime wedge . The flavors married well in the rich, spiced seafood broth, and cilantro added a touch of freshness. Unfortunately, whether due to the night of my visit or the preparation, the seafood here wasn't as vibrant as it had been in the arroz. I also didn't enjoy having to crack open soup-drenched crab legs to access the meat inside.

An order of enchiladas Campeche was pleasant if forgettable. The rich flavors were there, balanced by the bite of raw red onion and the mild sweetness of the salsa, but the exuberant freshness of the arroz didn't assert itself here, either. I again drew the inevitable crosstown comparison: the enchiladas and accompanying refried beans were similar to their counterparts at Laredo's.

Meat and chicken are represented as well, of course, in fajitas, tacos, and other staples, though vegetarians should note that their choices will be limited. A chicken burrito and meatless taco salad were unremarkable but fine. Neither was as good as the seafood dishes, but the choices were there.

Taken together, the restaurant's preparations are respectable, and the prices, hovering around $10 for most entrees, are generally quite reasonable (though several dishes cost a good deal more). More importantly, the kitchen clearly understands and respects working with quality ingredients, something unmistakable in their arroz al pescador. But in the end this is a good restaurant, not a remarkable one. If you've been craving Mexican cuisine featuring quality seafood at a reasonable price, El Pescador will certainly fill that niche. Just don't expect a revelation.

El Pescador
2810 East Washington Avenue; (608) 277-1055

Price: $-$$
Atmosphere: Sparse, casual, and nautically themed. Moderate to loud sound level.
Beverages: Domestic and imported beers; margaritas.
Suggestions: Arroz al pescador, seafood.
Hours: Opens 11 a.m. Monday through Thursday and 10 a.m. Friday through Sunday. Closes at 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Reservations: Not accepted.
What ratings mean: Stars indicate overall impressions of a restaurant, rated from zero to four, with price taken into account. Zero stars indicate a restaurant that is not recommended, while four stars indicate an outstanding restaurant, worthy of at least regional attention.
Prices range from $ to $$$$.

1 comment:

Rangika said...

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