Let it be said that Lynae Fearing and Tracy Rathbun know how to throw a party.
The corks have been popping and the pan-Asian plates have been flying at Shinsei, their over-the-top extravaganza on Inwood Road, for more than a decade now. This spring, the duo spread the festivities around the corner to Lovers Seafood and Market in the space that used to be Rex's Seafood.
But if Shinsei is a masked ball -- large, loud, lavish and a little louche -- Lovers is a lower-key, more casual affair. The soothing dining room is fairly small, its walls a muted shade of light gray; a soft blue glow emanates from under the counters of the two bars (one a raw bar). It all has the feel of a Park Cities club. There's a long communal high-top table that seats 10. The men wear blue oxford button-downs with sleeves rolled, the women are carefully coiffed. People take their kids.
Depending on how you feel about such things, the menu reflects either attention deficit disorder or eclecticism. There's basic American fish-house fare -- cold poached shrimp with cocktail sauce, crab cakes with tartar sauce; there are gestures in the direction of Asia -- sesame seared tuna, hamachi crudo; there are Cajun and creole -- gumbo, blackened redfish, po' boys; there's Southern -- fried green tomatoes, shrimp and grits; and there's a nod to our cousins across the pond, in the form of fish and chips.
But so what if the menu's rambling and incoherent? The thing is, most of it's quite good. It starts with fish and seafood that, whether it recently swam in the gulf or flew into DFW Airport, is gorgeously fresh (and some of which you may buy at the small retail counter in front). You might start with a sampling from the well-chosen, changing list of oysters on the half shell: Try some briny East Coasters, like the Little Islands from Maine, and a West Coast variety for contrast, like the creamy, sweet oysters from Spencer Cove, Wash. They come nestled in crushed ice on one of those little tower thingies, with cups of cocktail sauce, horseradish and spicy ginger-chilemignonette, though for my money they would be marred by anything but a little spritz of lemon.
Several of the Asian-inflected starters would be at home at Shinsei. The crispy calamari aren't your usual assortment of rings and tentacles, but a pile of wide slices from the bodies in a light cornmeal-and-cornstarch crust. They come on a pool of sweet chile sauce with tiny red tear-shaped sweety drop peppers -- sweet on sweet, yes, and perhaps a bit too much so, but they're tender and crisp. The tempura-fried lobster spoons are fun (if a splurge at $20): little knobs of lobster meat in a mild Thai yellow curry sauce perched on Japanese ceramic soup spoons. A special of coconut fried shrimp drenched in a slightly spicy soy glaze flecked with sesame seeds is a gooey pleasure, provided you aren't expecting the more traditional crispy version.
If it's crunch you want, go for the fried green tomatoes, vividly tart, tender slices in a cornmeal batter. Sweep a slice through the cooling smear of goat cheese crèma and dab it into the swirl of chile-spiked thyme honey for a bite whose contrasting tastes and textures work.
On the other hand (or eight), the same can't be said of the grilled baby octopus, a dish whose elements seem to shout at one another. The cephalopods themselves are fine, cooked to just the right degree of softness, and their bed of crispy fried kale has a seaweedy sort of logic. But what goat cheese is doing on this plate, let alone candied lemon, is beyond me.
Things are most successful when the kitchen lets the top-notch, pristine seafood shine. The pan-roasted halibut, for example, is simply a lovely piece of fish, moist and delicate under a crisp sear. It's presented unfussily on a bed of creamy quinoa risotto braced by a golden drizzle of Calabrese-chile-and-lemon olive oil. The shrimp and grits features four of the fattest, meatiest grilled shrimp you could ask for, plunged into a pool of unctuous grits amped up with jalapeño jack cheese and kernels of fresh corn. I didn't think anybody was doing blackened redfish anymore, but Lovers' version will remind you of why the dish ignited a national frenzy that drove the species to the brink of extinction in the 1980s: a sweet fillet with a crunchy top of cayenne, paprika and pepper, seared just to the edge of charred, nestled on jambalaya and accompanied by tasso cream gravy.
Because Lovers is working with such top-notch fruits of the sea, the misfires are particularly disappointing. Lightly seared tuna with a coating of white and black sesame seeds is a hoary cliché, sure, though it could work -- especially with such beautiful, shimmering red slices of fish. But here, the tuna and its accompaniment of rice noodles and slivered peppers swim in a bath of something that's billed as a spicy Thai dressing but that is so overpowered by vinegar that the guest who ordered it kept speculating that someone in the kitchen had made a terrible mistake. The fish and chips are a rather dreary affair, too, the blameless Icelandic cod enrobed in a limp and soggy crust.
Such glitches aside, Lovers is a mostly pleasant experience. The servers are professional and attentive (though there are occasional wobbles in the service, too: Our table got one starter, the otherwise fine hamachi crudo, long after our main courses had been delivered). There's a menu of house cocktails with worthy twists on Manhattans, Old-Fashioneds and Moscow mules, and a brief but well-chosen wine list that includes several fish-friendly whites, many available by the glass. (An especially nice touch: half-price wine on Tuesday nights.) And the classic American desserts -- peach cobbler a la mode, blueberry buckle, Key lime pie -- are likable if unremarkable.
It may not have the glitz and glamour of the shindig around the corner at Shinsei, but this latest Fearing-Rathbun bash is still one party you'd be happy to attend.
Mark Vamos is a journalism professor at Southern Methodist University.
Lovers Seafood and Market (3 stars)
Price: $$$-$$$$ (Lunch starters, soups and salads $7-$20; sandwiches $12-$17; main dishes $17-$34. Dinner starters, soups and salads $7-$23; sandwiches $13-$17; main dishes $17-$39; desserts $8.)
Service: The smooth and professional servers are attentive without being intrusive.
Ambience: Bathed in a blue glow, the comfortable dining room feels intimate and soothing. There are several seating options -- regular tables, a long communal high-top, a bar and raw bar, and a pleasant patio.
Noise level: Low enough for easy conversation, even at peak times
Hours: Monday-Sunday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Most recent health department inspection score: 97 (June 23)
Alcohol: Full bar, with some well-designed house cocktails, and a brief wine list that includes several seafood-friendly whites, many available by the glass.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor