During our recent trip to Atlanta for the CEDIA Expo, our friends from Cambridge Audio invited us out to dinner one evening. They settled upon the Atlanta Fish Market, a very popular restaurant in the Buckhead area. I'd been by the Atlanta Fish Market a number of times in the past, but never ate there. It was at or near the top of our list of places to eat while we were in Atlanta during this trip.
It's tough to miss the Atlanta Fish Market with it's distinctive 65 foot copper salmon sculpture out in front. The sculpture has been a landmark since the original Fish Market restaurant moved there in the early 90's and became the Atlanta Fish Market. The restaurant is under the corporate umbrella of the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group, headed by Pano Karatassos. Buckhead Life Restaurant Group includes such popular restaurants such as Buckhead Diner, Pano's and Paul's, Bluepointe, and Chops Lobster Bar.
Karatassos (left) established the Fish Market restaurant in 1981 and moved it to its present-day location on Pharr Road in 1993 (see map). Today, the Atlanta Fish Market restaurant is one of the most popular seafood restaurants in the United States. The head chef at the Atlanta Fish Market is Robert Holley who has over 20 years of chef experience, and who has been the head chef at Atlanta Fish Market since 2000.
With the heart of Buckhead getting torn up (the Buckhead I remember with the funky little shops, bars and restaurants), it's a little tough to navigate around the area if you don't quite know where you're going. They're trying to turn Buckhead into the "Rodeo Drive of the East", as my friend from Atlanta told me before I came back to the area for the first time in nearly 10 years. But with the economic down turn, some projects have just stopped leaving the area a jumbled mess of half-finished buildings and closed streets.
We got into the Atlanta Fish Market just before our 7:30 p.m. reservation. The guys from Cambridge Audio hadn't made it in yet, so we waited near the hostess stand in the main dining room. The main dining area sort of reminded me of a 1950's-style high-end South Florida restaurant. It had a high ceiling supported with tall, thin columns with large globe lights hanging down. It had a wood floor and was pretty loud. At the front of the room was the open kitchen, complete with a large glass-enclosed fish counter - very similar to what you'd find at a large fish market. You could look in and see what looked good before you ordered your meal.
The Cambridge Audio guys showed up just after 7:30 and they took us through the bar area and into a large room off the side of the bar that was set up for larger parties. We had 15 people in our party and there was a large party next to us that was just finishing up as we were being seated. About 30 minutes after the first party left, an even larger party commandeered the long table next to us. But it wasn't loud or uncomfortable at all.
I sat next to Paul Masson, the Director for Business Development for Cambridge Audio. All the Cambridge Audio guys are from the United Kingdom, so they've got that certain sense of humor and worldly nature about them. Paul is a great guy and he's always fun to talk to.
Usually with large groups, most restaurants will require that you order from a group menu to keep it simple for the kitchen staff. But Atlanta Fish Market is pretty good sized and large groups eating ala carte is no problem for them. We were given a large menu and we began to check out what they had fresh that particular evening.
My God! The Atlanta Fish Market had a little bit of everything! They had over 20 different varieties of fresh fish or seafood to choose from that evening. They had sushi rolls, tuna carpaccio, fresh oysters and mussels, and chowder and gumbo. It was like I wanted to try a little bit of everything.
We initially ordered up some appetizers. I ordered a cup of the gumbo and a plate of the yellow-fin tuna carpaccio for a start. The gumbo was excellent - very meaty and full of seafood. I could have just eaten the gumbo the rest of the night, it was that good. And the yellow-fin tuna carpaccio was just excellent, as well. Very thin slices of sushi-grade yellow-fin tuna that they served in a lemon/chive dressing. It wasn't fishy tasting at all.
Some of the guys down the table had gotten oysters on the half shell and Prince Edward Island mussels. My colleague, Todd, grew up on Prince Edward Island and he knows if the mussels are good or not. He was very happy with the mussels served at the Atlanta Fish Market. He sent me down a couple mussels along with an oyster on the half-shell. The oyster was big and meaty and had great flavor. But the mussels were excellent - moist, tender, good-sized. Todd said, "Oh, yeah. These are the real P.E.I. mussels I'm used to."
My colleague, John, was seated to my left and he ordered some various pieces of sushi as his appetizer. He gave me a piece of the fatty tuna sushi. It was melt-in-your-mouth excellent. I said, "You guys, I gotta quit eating the appetizers or I won't be hungry for dinner!"
For my main entree that evening, I was torn between a number of things. I mean, I literally couldn't make up my mind. There was North Atlantic Salmon, Nova Scotia Halibut, Gulf of Mexico Mahi Mahi, Florida Grouper - the list went on and on. I knew that I couldn't possibly make a bad selection with what they had to offer. So I ended up getting the blackened red snapper from the Gulf of Mexico. I also got a side of whipped sweet potatoes (the best sweet potatoes I've ever had in my life have come from Georgia) and a side of mixed vegetables.
Seated to my right, Paul was also having a difficult time trying to figure out what to get. He ended up getting the Nova Scotia Halibut, blackened. John ordered up the special that evening - twice baked lobster with crab, shrimp and lobster meat. Oh, man, that sounded great, but so rich.
The wine was flowing rather well that evening. Peter Brown, the C.O.O. of Cambridge Audio had selected a wonderful Newton Cabernet from the Napa Valley. It was full and flavorful, but didn't overpower the seafood. There was a white wine being passed around, but I went with the Newton Cab, of which many bottles were drank at the table.
About 25 minutes after we ordered our food it showed up at the table, shepherded with precision efficiency by the Atlanta Fish Market wait staff. Within a minute, all 15 in our party had been served our food and we dug in.
Well, I thought that I couldn't go wrong with anything I ordered, but I was severely wrong about the red snapper. The fish was dry and thin. The blackened seasoning didn't help it very much. I don't think it was over-cooked as much as it was just a below-par red snapper filet. On the other hand, the whipped sweet potatoes were wonderful, and the mixed vegetable medley was cooked just right - not mushy at all. The blackened red snapper was easily the weakest part of the meal.
Paul's blackened halibut, on the other hand, was moist, meaty and flaky. He offered me a bite after I told him that I was disappointed in my red snapper. It was, in a word, excellent. I just shook my head and said, "Man, I really screwed this up. I haven't had red snapper for quite sometime. I thought about getting a North Atlantic fish of some sort - sole, cod, halibut. But I decided on the snapper."
Paul said, "Halibut is very difficult to screw up. Especially if it's fresh. I find it to be a very safe choice when it comes to ordering in seafood restaurants." OK, lesson learned from a seasoned traveler like Paul.
John's twice-baked lobster was heavenly and sinful at the same time. They cooked the lobster tail, then scooped it out and mixed it with chopped crab, shrimp and lobster meat. Then it's cooked again and served with a white cream sauce. He offered me a bite and said, "Dude, take a bite of this. This is so frigging rich that there's no way I'll be able to finish it." And it was rich. The cream sauce was just out of this world.
After dinner, they came around to take our orders for dessert. I was literally stuffed at that point, but Paul kept goading me into getting something. He said, "If I get a piece of key lime pie, will you help me eat it?"
I said, "I may have a bite, but that's it." In the meantime, however, I got to looking at the after-dinner drink menu - especially the Scotch. They had a Macallan 25-year Scotch on the menu - at $22 bucks a shot. You know, I've had a good year with Cambridge Audio. I've put on a number of dealers. I've grown my business in a rough economic time - especially for audio equipment. I thought I deserved a 25-year Macallan. I said to Paul, "I'm sorry, but I've worked hard for you guys this year and I believe I've earned this."
He said, "No need to explain yourself, Will. Yes, you have done a wonderful job for us."
The key lime pie came out with my Scotch. I've had the Macallan 25 year before, but it just seemed smoother and more rich on the taste buds this time. The piece of key lime pie was a pretty good sized piece. Paul said, "You really have to help me with this. This is a big piece of pie!"
I said I would only have one bite, but after that first bite, I couldn't resist to have a second. Or a third. Or a fourth. It was overly flavorful with a very forward key lime taste. I was so full from the appetizers and the dinner, but the key lime pie was so good that I couldn't resist.
Other than the very mediocre blackened red snapper, everything that I expected out of the Atlanta Fish Market came to fruition. The service was impeccable, the atmosphere was very comfortable, and the food - for the large part of what I had (or tasted) - was very, very good. But I'm starting to wonder if red snapper is an over-rated fish for blackening purposes. I'd never had blackened halibut before, but I would crawl back to Atlanta Fish Market just to order that. And we're going back to Atlanta for the CEDIA Expo in 2010 and I'm sure that we'll be heading back to the Atlanta Fish Market for a meal. And I'll order the blackened halibut then.