Sitting on the patio on a gorgeous late-spring day at Fin & Pearl, my lunch companion and I were in the middle of solving a few of the world’s problems when our food arrived — market catch for him, spicy fish sandwich for me.
Al fresco dining is almost always a treat, and I love Fin & Pearl’s space. It’s covered, the chairs are comfy, and the natural wood of the exterior is a very pleasant antidote to the ever-rising towers of glass in the Gulch. Al fresco seafood? I’m happy merely at the thought, and Fin & Pearl is one of the highest-profile candidates to step into Nashville’s seafood breach.
I had finished off a rather mushy ceviche, looking mainly for a piece that hadn’t been over-marinated in citrus, without success. The flavor was decent, even if the texture was off, but I had greater hope for our main courses. My fish sandwich was a mess, though. I like spicy preparations in general, but this sauce was a small blob of heat in the middle of a big deep-fried piece of fish. Do I spread it? I eventually tried, but knocked off some of the batter in the process. That wasn’t even the worst part: The market-price tuna entrée was overdone.
Look, cooking seafood isn’t easy. But the thing you absolutely cannot do to a piece of a fish that you flew in from Hawaii and for which you are charging $38 at lunch is cook it so long that it requires a knife to cut. It’s a sin, and one that may not be forgiven by many people.
In many ways, Fin & Pearl is perfectly representative of Nashville’s explosive dining scene right now: The restaurant is beautiful, sounds many of the right notes about sustainability and food culture, and sometimes dazzles. But more often than it should, Fin & Pearl stumbles on some basic service and cooking marks.
Executive chef Matt Farley built a strong following at The Southern, and his aim here, with owner Tom Morales, is to create an “earth-friendly seafood restaurant” using sources that share their outlook on sustainability. It’s a noble goal, and sometimes the results are excellent — like in the case of the bronzini, a fish that is fried whole and served with a black bean sauce.
Why hasn’t Nashville had a truly great seafood restaurant? Up until the past decade, the problem was always in the supply chain, particularly if you were at all concerned with best practices and avoiding overfished species. Now it’s possible to build relationships with small operations, as Farley and Morales have done, and get great catches. You may have to pay a little more on the consumer end, but in the case of that bronzini, it’s completely worth it.
The menu, like the restaurant, is a sprawl, stretching across three different services. From 7:30 to 11 a.m., you might not even know the restaurant’s heart lies in the sea, save for some shrimp-and-grits or a shrimp-and-avocado benedict that sneaks onto the brunch menu on the weekends. The breakfast menu would be at home in a dozen other places — chicken and waffles, omelettes, French toast, granola, eggs and sausage or bacon. Seeing a plate of steak-and-eggs go out, I got an order at the bar one morning. It’s a small pleasure to get counter service for such a utilitarian meal, watching headlines on the TVs over the gorgeous bar and preparing for the day. My steak, though, arrived too rare (I ordered medium-rare), and the egg too set (I ordered runny). Again, the meal was undone by the basics.
I have had the most success at lunch, and the restaurant’s proximity to the Scene’s office makes it an easy escape in the middle of the day. The burger is good, and the po’boy can be quite good — I preferred the fried-shrimp version — but at $11, the mussels on the appetizer menu are a fantastic standalone option. They’re cooked in a Thai-style red curry coconut broth with big chunks of tomato, so make sure you get some grilled bread to sop it all up. The chowder, sweetened by a little corn, is also outstanding.
Dinner is where Fin & Pearl should shine, and sometimes it does. The best preparation for the market catch — summer vegetables with Carolina gold rice and a beurre blanc sauce — worked fabulously with a cobia filet one evening. That bronzini tastes as impressive as it looks, cooked whole with the head left on. A selection of oysters ran the gamut — though if you see the Kumamotos, order as many as your budget will allow: They’re perfect. Similarly, the grilled octopus was tender and paired well with a white bean puree. The table gave a split verdict on seared scallops: I liked them with the little truffle dumplings, but a dissenter thought the corn and red peppers made for a giant plate of unappealing sweetness. Your mileage may vary.
One disclaimer: I skipped the non-seafood half of the dinner menu. I find it curious that a place that has invested as much in sourcing and decor as Morales & Co. have would feel the need to offer a $52 cowgirl ribeye straight off a steakhouse menu or a sweet-tea-brined pork chop. Maybe it’s just playing the odds, but it’s also Old Nashville thinking. If you’re betting this big on seafood, skip the tamarind chicken.
The restaurant is ambitious. It’s an all-day operation, and that requires a day’s worth of waitstaff and waves of line cooks, both of which are in short supply across the city. Sometimes it shows up in a server who’s a little out of their depth or in a dish that misses the mark. Fortunately, those are problems that can be fixed. When they are — and when Farley is able to shed the last trappings of a non-seafood restaurant — Fin & Pearl might turn out to be great. Until then, it’s treading water.