By Ron Bechtol
With the Watermark Hotel and Spa, the owners of La Mansión del Rio have made a huge commitment to downtown - never mind that the hotel effectively turns its back on Commerce Street. In Pesca, the hotel's river-level restaurant, the commitment continues - never mind that some have compared its interior design to a Denny's on a bigger budget.
It is true that decor is not Pesca's strong suit, though if God is in the details, then godliness abounds in small touches such as the tableware and the salt and pepper shakers. The dominance of booths - the bane of restaurant managers who usually prefer the flexibility of tables - is perhaps the main reason for the perception of a well-dressed diner, though if we were to admit it, many of us would be happy to have a booth, given the choice - it's a more defensible space.
A seating option at Pesca that isn't available anywhere else in town is a stool at the seafood bar: a tantalizing display of fresh oysters, clams, and by-the-piece shrimp and crab. The raw selection changes daily, and the oysters alone are worth a week of dedicated concentration. On one occasion we sampled tiny, metallic Kumamotos from the Pacific Coast, plump, briny Elkhorns from Washington, and opulent Atlantic Coast Reach Island oysters that inevitably remind one of the oyster-eating scene in Tom Jones. (The tiny oysters may be better eating, but the bigger ones are definitely sexier.) From exquisite Olympias, the smallest commercially harvested oyster, to cucumber-nuanced Quilcines, Pesca's seasonal list (some oysters "r" OK in summer months) offers oysters for all diners. Just for grins, we also tried the raw and wild littleneck clams, finding them more texturally challenging than the oysters, but just as rewarding in terms of taste. The mollusks are served with a classic cocktail sauce, a smoky miso sauce, and a tart mignonette.
The seafood bar is your only option at Pesca between lunch and dinner, and it's easy to imagine whiling away a lazy afternoon with one of the more than 30 wines by the glass and a platter of fresh oysters, if your life allows for such a thing.
The shellfish are available at other times, and since you can order as few as a half-dozen, indulging at dinner shouldn't prevent anyone from exploring such appetizers as the baked oysters with morel cream and the seared rare tuna. This is where the chef's art becomes apparent: Jonathan Parker seems to have a penchant for pairing seafood with flavors we might not consider conventional. The tuna with matchstick green apple, a reduced cider sauce, and cumin seed is a prime example: Everything comes together handsomely. The only real complaint lies in the size of the serving: It's just a little too precious for $8.
Eleven dollars will get you an order of four small, baked oysters on the half shell with morel cream on a bed of seaweed. Taken as a whole, this is an exquisite marriage of flavors, though the morels did dominate - and they were gritty. If it's an oyster experience you're after, this is not it. But whatever your opinion, don't fail to sop up the earthy cream sauce with some of Pesca's signature bread.
I have nothing but boundless praise for the chef's roasted branzini, however. This firm-fleshed white fish flown in from Greece was one of the recent daily lunch specials, and it was a paragon of piscatorial pulchritude. General Manager Sonny suggested a 2002 Bergkelder Fleur du Cap South African chardonnay for the lush fish; the wine's citrus and green apple touched with oak made for a perfect match. As all of Pesca's entrées are à la carte (and small), ordering a side is suggested, and here the spinach with garlic-onion "soffrito" simply blew me away.
The selection of desserts at Pesca lacks the moral purity of the evening menu, where an aged filet mignon and vegetables in parchment are the only non-fish offerings, but purity is overrated anyway. The least excessive option, a French apple tart on puff pastry with spiced ice cream, was also the least rewarding, mostly due to a deflated pastry. The croissant-based fig, banana, and walnut pudding with bourbon vanilla sauce (Fabien's suggestion), on the other hand, was a sheer delight - and much lighter than it sounds. Sadly, there's not even a late harvest gewurztraminer by the glass on the otherwise exemplary wine list, so you'll have to make do with coffee. It's a small price to pay. •