Review: The Blue Fish Restaurant & Oyster Bar
I do not enjoy writing bad reviews, so I try to avoid it at all costs. Unlike many publications, EatJax gives me a lot of autonomy over my restaurant choices so, for the most part, I hear great things about a place before checking it out myself. I hear about bad restaurants all the time, but I don’t see the point in spending the money and time on a place just to confirm that the restaurant is horrible. I don’t want to tell you where NOT to go – I want to recommend good places to go.
That is why The Blue Fish Restaurant & Oyster Bar was a very big disappointment to me. Its recent opening in the former Sterling’s location commanded attention. Avondale prides itself on being a center for fine shopping, fine art and fine dining. When a person living in Jacksonville goes to a restaurant in the heart of Avondale, they expect excellence. Unfortunately, The Blue Fish is not yet up to that tall order.
I arrived for lunch on a chilly Monday just before noon. My lunch companion had fallen ill, so I went alone. One of the things which was always mentioned about Sterling’s was the lovely patio area, so I decided to brave the chill and sit outside. I was pleased to see as I was seated that there was a patio heater located just beside the table. I have experienced the convenience of these heaters at restaurants like The Brick, so I was sure I would be comfortable. One of my hard and fast rules when reviewing a restaurant is to never ask for anything special. I take dishes as they are normally prepared and service as it is given – without requests. I did not mention the heater and it was not offered to me - so I sat in the fifty-degree cold.
A hostess came to fill my water glass, take away the unused dishes and let me know about the specials. I had plenty of time before my next waitperson came to observe the state of the patio area. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to have been cared for well since The Blue Fish opened. The fountain was dirty, with a hose and net left out on the ground near my table. Lattice work was broken and leaning, umbrellas and chairs were not clean. Worst of all, the white tablecloth at my table was dirty and stained. Perhaps the restaurant wasn’t prepared for lunch customers to dine on the patio on such a cold day, but the tables had been set with dishes and silverware and seventy degree temperatures had been experienced just two days before, with more to come in the following week.
My waiter greeted me kindly. His name was Brad and he was the one pleasant spot in the ordeal. I gave him my order and was brought my first course in a speedy manner. I ordered the cup-sized Seafood Gumbo ($4.95 cup, $9 bowl). It was rather good, though I have had much better in town. The seafood was well-cooked, other than a few unfortunate bits of overcooked fish. I was surprised to find the gumbo completely without okra. This could simply be that I didn’t happen to get any in my cup, but overall, it was a decent starter.
I would have liked to have seen the cup itself a bit cleaner. The gumbo was slopped down the sides and dribbled onto the doily below.
There was an extended wait for my entree. I’m not sure exactly how long it was, but I was half-finished with the Folio Weekly crossword by the time it arrived. I thanked my server and began to eat. I ordered the Fried Shrimp Po’Boy Sandwich ($11). Unfortunately, I received a Fried Oyster Po’Boy Sandwich.
Before I realized the mistake, I tried the coleslaw and the sweet potato fries. The coleslaw was awful. It was mushy and definitely not fresh tasting. The addition of raisins only highlighted the tastelessness of the tiny pile of wilted cabbage – not pretty and not good. The fries were no better. Of course, for all I know, they hand-cut their fries, but they tasted mushy and stale. Even worse, mine were cold and unseasoned – very disappointing.
It’s my habit to try each element of a dish before eating it as a whole, so I can properly describe each bit. First I tried the bread of the sandwich. This was excellent - the baguette was outstanding. What was inside was a crime against that beautiful, perfect bread. The tomatoes were tasteless and soft and the lettuce was wilted and sparse. The “remoulade” was bland and resembled nothing more than mayonnaise with ketchup mixed into it. This was about the time I noticed the shrimp were actually oysters. This isn’t the biggest deal in the world. Wrong orders happen, especially in newly-opened restaurants. I figured I would chalk it up to a happy accident – after all, the place is a “restaurant and oyster bar” – so maybe the oysters would be a better choice. I tasted the oyster and was very, very disappointed.
Most importantly, the oyster was stone cold. The restaurant fries in a cornmeal breading. It was moist and mushy with no crunch and no taste. The oyster was so tiny that I had a hard time tasting it at all in the mass of breading. The sogginess of that breading combined with the temperature of the oyster inside set off every warning siren in my head. I had to break my own rules about service because I wasn’t going to eat it. I was afraid that it had sat at an unsafe temperature for too long. I resolved to wait for my waiter to return. He didn’t.
Finally, after about ten minutes, I went inside and flagged him down. He was extremely apologetic. After yet another long wait, my sandwich came out. This time, the coleslaw was exactly the same, but the fries were hot and seasoned – though I can’t say that it improved them much. The sandwich was hot, but the cornmeal breading was, again, not crispy.
As you can see from the photo, the lettuce and tomato were virtually non-existent. The shrimp themselves were okay, but nothing to write home about. They were covered in so much breading that what you see in the photo is only six medium shrimp. There was very little remoulade with no discernable vegetables in the sauce. As a whole it was a sad failure for such a lovely piece of bread.
In Avondale - for $11 – for what is considered half of a po’boy in the south, this should have been an outstanding sandwich. Instead, I got something that would be more at home in the food court of a shopping mall than on St. Johns Avenue at a new restaurant. The owners have been quoted in the press as saying that they are trying for an affordable establishment, which is great, but bad food is bad at any price. My total bill came to $17, certainly not much for lunch in Avondale. Unfortunately, and I am not exaggerating, it took me an hour and twenty minutes to spend that $17 on one of the worst table service lunches I’ve had in Jacksonville.
Richard Grenamyer is the chef/owner of The Blue Fish. He actually opened Sterling’s originally back in the 1980s, so I’m sure he is aware of what is expected in that area of the city. There is a new generation of foodies ready to experience greatness from the finest concept restaurants right down to the tiniest hot dog cart. It doesn’t have to be expensive food, it just has to be good food. I don’t have any secret inside information on why places like Sterling’s close, but I can tell you without a doubt that what replaces them will need to be smart, clean, fresh and delicious to survive.
I’m willing to believe that the newness of the restaurant, combined with unintended accidents, cost-cutting, oversights or even just a bad day, may have contributed to my negative experience. I am willing to try The Blue Fish again – but I won’t be sitting on the porch.
The Blue Fish is located at 3551 St. Johns Avenue in Avondale. You can reach them at (904) 387-0700 or check out their website at bluefishjax.com.
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