Thursday, July 12, 2007

Hook, as in fishhook. Barton Seaver’s new restaurant on busy M Street in Georgetown serves fish almost exclusively. There are a few non-fish salads and the occasional steak, but everything else is from sea and stream, raw and cooked.

The fish is superb, sparkling fresh. The menu changes daily, depending on the freshest available on the market from waters around the globe. The produce is locally grown. What arrives on a diner’s plate is nearly always perfect.

Yet there’s something a bit precious about Hook. Perhaps it’s the small portions, or the over-eager waiter hovering to ask, and ask, whether tastes are satisfactory. Or perhaps it’s the very simplicity of each dish.

While it’s a good idea to let such perfect ingredients speak by themselves, intriguing sauces are always tempting. Mr. Seaver adorns his jewel-like portions of fish with only a smidgen of sauce, if any, and a minimum of accompaniments. After enjoying his imaginative cooking at Cafe Saint Ex, much as we admire his new concept, we were just a trifle disappointed.

Appetizers are divided into two groups: several tiny portions — just a mouthful — of raw fish, and eight or nine more conventional starters.

The raw fish, or “crudo” as they are called, are served individually for $3 or as a flight of three for $8, and include delicacies such as trout roe, tuna, salmon, a single oyster, mackerel or mahi-mahi. Offerings, as with entrees, change daily.

We tried a combination of trout roe served with a tiny slice of brioche topped with a minuscule dab of creme fraiche. Beautiful and delicious. A small paper-thin square of mahi-mahi with a little lemon and parsley and a spoonful of tuna tartare with a touch of grapefruit were tasty but not out of the ordinary. The tartare is also available as a regular appetizer portion.

An appetizer of grilled octopus was served at room temperature. Grilled food should have a slight crispness to it; the octopus didn’t. The flavor was good but it was slightly chewy. It would have been better served hot, a good contrast to the meager serving of cool chopped tomatoes on the side. In contrast, the octopus rested on an over-abundance of underdressed frisee salad.

Watermelon gazpacho, on the other hand, was terrific. Brilliant red in color, with a lovely depth of flavor, and just the suggestion of red currants with a dollop of creamy yogurt, one wished there was a little more of the soup in the plate.

An appetizer of country ham with small square buttermilk biscuits, a scoop of coarse mustard and two little cornichons is a fine choice as a non-fish starter. The ham is excellent and not as salty as country ham usually is. But the biscuits: Like cornbread, they must be served hot from the oven. Pretty though these were, they were cold, mealy and crumbled at the touch. Bread in general seems to be a problem at Hook — it’s not up to snuff.

Starter salads include a salad of local greens, as well as a beet salad, Caesar salad and arugula salad.

On a recent evening, the only meat entree was a grass-fed steak, served with potatoes and greens. The variety of fish, however, was impressive.

Bluefish, served on a nicely spiced zucchini-potato pancake (not quite cooked through), was wonderful. Rich in flavor, the fish is reminiscent of summers on Cape Cod. Hook prepares it perfectly. A little walnut pesto comes on the side.

A square of lovely white halibut was equally fresh and well cooked. The fish rested on a small serving of what the menu called “ratatouille,” but was a mild combination of sauteed tomatoes and zucchini. Halibut is a bland fish and would be better served with an accompaniment of stronger character. The frisee lettuce served with the fish adds nothing except color.

My serving of wild king salmon was perhaps the best piece of salmon I have ever eaten, cooked very rare, just as ordered. A little more than the smudge of butter sauce would have been welcome. The salmon is served with string beans and roasted pine nuts.

So much attention seems to be paid to the quality and preparation of the fish that the kitchen appears to overlook interesting side dishes that are an important part of every entree. The accompanying salad greens, or a vegetable appear more as decoration than something good to eat. Nor are side dishes available separately.

Desserts by talented pastry chef Heather Chittum include a lemon pound cake served with blueberry sorbet, and an almond cake with rhubarb sorbet, both excellent.

For lunch, Hook has the same crudo-appetizer-entree menu with a few changes. Appetizers are primarily salads, and entrees include sandwiches such as a bluefish club or a croque monsieur (a version of grilled ham and cheese), a pasta or two and, of course, fish. Between lunch and dinner, crudos and salads are available.

Sunday brunch is more traditional with eggs, quiche, French toast, pancakes, smoked salmon and hamburgers on the menu, although crudos are always available.

Hook is across M Street from the Georgetown Park mall. As you enter, a wave of sound engulfs you from the bar catering to the young and restless. A few tables by the front windows and a dining area in the back, at the front of the open kitchen, are drowned in sound. The large dining room upstairs is quiet enough to permit conversation.

A streetlight shines through a light, airy curtain into the front window, like sunshine on a bright day. It’s a pleasant room decorated with large and colorful photographs of sea creatures. A good selection of wines from around the world is served by attentive and competent waiters.

RESTAURANT: Hook, 3241 M St. NW; 202/625-4488

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Wednesday to Friday; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday to Tuesday, until 11 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and until midnight Friday and Saturday; brunch 10 a.m. to noon Saturday and Sunday

PRICES: Appetizers $8 to $10; main courses $12 to $19 (lunch), $23 to $26 (dinner); desserts $8.

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards.

PARKING: Tight street parking, but there are several neighborhood lots.

ACCESS: First floor is wheelchair accessible.

METRO: Foggy Bottom (Orange and Blue lines)

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