When Avondale stalwart Sterling's Cafe closed its doors late last year, Richard and Evalee Grenamyer waded in and created a sea change.
Remodeled and re-imagined, the prime location re-emerged as The Blue Fish Restaurant and Oyster Bar - the same -at least in name and concept - as a restaurant the Grenamyers own in Memphis, Tennessee.
The Avondale location serves lunch and dinner every day. It's open at 11 a.m. Monday through Saturday, and Sunday brunch begins at 10:30 a.m. Memphis diners have to wait until the dinner hour, presumably so the fresh catch of the day can be Fedexed in - let's hope they're not hauling it out of the Big Muddy.
The transformation is stunning. Shades of blue - deep navy, cool seafoam, vibrant turquoise - are everywhere - the walls, barstools, table linens, light fixtures. And since blue is my favorite color, I feel right at home.
Indoors and out, the dining spaces are adorable. Two pics i recently snapped have been serving in turn as my iPhone wallpaper.
Evalee Grenamyer was quoted in the Florida Times Union as saying that their goal was to have "a fun, affordable place that people feel comfortable coming to". And they are coming, despite an impossibly long urban renewal project that has the street and half its parking in constant upheaval.
Apparently many of Sterling's regulars have also made The Blue Fish their home away from home. During a recent mid-week lunch, an elderly couple were seated next to me, on what was obviously their first visit since their beloved Sterling's had shuffled off its mortal coil. Noticing a group of diners hobbling in, walkers gleaming in the midday sun, the woman whispered to her companion "It sure looks different, but its the same old crowd." He chuckled and agreed "that's exactly right, the same OLD crowd."
Featuring two bars, one up and one down, with a great bar menu, The Blue Fish has reportedly become a lively gathering place for the over sixty set - I haven't been to Happy Hour (3-6 PM Daily) yet, but a friend told me that based on the SRO crowd the night he and his partner stopped in, they could have been featuring 2 for 1 Geritol shots and Viagra poppers. The early bird gets the worm - so head on over there one afternoon and see for yourself - maybe you'll find a sugar daddy! One assumes the late night weekend crowd might skew a bit younger. Report back, Beasties. You know I confine my alcohol consumption to the other side of the ditch.
It's time to talk about the food! I've only been for lunch so far, where the serving sizes are a gracious plenty. At dinner, I am told, each entree can be bought as a full serving or a "light plate."
Taking a tip from a businessman (apparently there's an Avondale version of the power lunch going on at The Blue Fish) I ordered the Lemon Caper Catch ($13) - on this day it was Snapper. I was pleased with the choice, yet confused by the presentation, which included a fair amount of what looked like grass clippings scattered around the rim of the plate.
If this was an herb of some sort, and meant to enhance the flavor of the dish, why was none of it on the food? Then I figured it out. Clearly this was an homage to the parsley-scattering craze of the 1980's. How very retro.
The fresh catch varies, but for a recent two week stint we were offered nothing but Talapia (don't EVEN get me started) and Catfish, which may be all the rage in Memphis, but I try to avoid farmed fish in general - it just doesn't have the same characteristics as the line-caught variety.
Sock it to me Shrimp appetizer was a bargain at $6 - The portion was generous - enough to share or have as a meal. The juicy shrimp were nicely breaded and fried, served piping hot with a coating of creamy Thai spiced sauce.
Again, the generous sprinkle of finely chopped herbs, but this time some of them actually landed on the shrimp. Accompanying field greens were wilting, browned and undressed, so had we wanted to eat them we would have had to squeeze on some fresh lemon juice, I guess. A wise restaurateur once told me he puts nothing on the plate that isn't meant to be eaten. But hey - check out their adorable "fishy" silverware - HOW FUN IS THAT?
A Fried Oyster Caesar salad (on the dinner menu at $10) was fairly pedestrian in the salad component, but the nuggets of soft, briny oysters encased in crispy-fried corn meal elevated the dish into something quite enjoyable.
Again they came to table hot and perfectly cooked, thankfully with no retro presentation devices.
The buzz about this place has been mixed. Good food, slow service. Great service, food was off. Presentation on a dish changes radically from one day to the next, so when you go back to re-experience a favorite, it comes out as something altogether different and unappealing. These are a few of the comments I've heard while working on this piece.
One thing I've observed for myself, the quality of the service varies wildly, from person to person, seat to seat. I found as I was lunching alone I was often seated near the front door. That little alley of seats I call the desert, both for the blast of heat that envelops you as the door is being held open while Gertie parks the hover-round, and for the vast uninterrupted space and time you are sitting with not so much as a sip of water or a wave from your server.
On one such occasion I ordered the Quiche of the Day, which was delicious, but I was disappointed that it was made with a prefab pie crust. Accompanied by either salad or a cup of soup (which gets the minced herb treatment) and those mysteriously naked wilted salad greens ($10)
Assuming the thing is not being made to order since you are served a generous slice, it amazed me that it took over 20 minutes to bring it to the table. In that time, my waitress gabbed with the other waitstaff, went on a sabbatical of some sort, and finally, after noticing my outright glare, checked in with the kitchen and brought the lukewarm quiche. "The first one burned, I had to tell them to throw it out and start over" was her explanation. She was throwing the kitchen crew under the bus to compensate for her own inadequate attention span. Note to self. Do not sit in her section again.
On another occasion in "the desert" I observed a crew of two young women coming to turn the table next to mine. One carried the silver, napkins, water glasses and a flower arrangement, the other followed with just a roll of clean white paper to spread atop the cloth. On her way to the table, the girl with the paper sneezed, three quick, germy little blasts. Not to worry, she lifted her arm and sneezed onto her sleeve - the one that was carrying the roll of paper. I watched as she laid it down and carefully spread it out to the edges of the table, smoothing it with her arm and hands.
The other woman, unaware of the microscopic danger, set the glasses and napkins, then placed a pretty bouquet of daisies in the middle of the table. I debated whether I should call it to her attention that the paper was contaminated, but decided to let sleeping germs lie. Next time I sat at the bar. No paper, just clean, freshly wiped surfaces and friendly service.
I loved the Shrimp and Grits. These were sauteed with Cajun spices, mushrooms, shrimp broth and butter over stone ground grits ($12). I'd love to tell you that theirs was among the best I've eaten. It was. I just wouldn't want you to get the impression that yours will be the same.
I'm sure in time I will return to The Blue Fish.
The Blue Fish3551 Saint Johns Avenue
Jacksonville, FL 32205