If to dine well is to be transported, then forgive me when I briefly wonder: Where the hell am I?
Coming up for air in the middle of a crab-leg-cracking feast, finding myself surrounded by a kaleidoscopic jellyfish mural, a neon-red crab sign, and a shark suspended from the stories-high ceiling, I realize I’ve lost all sense of place and time. Not only because a perfectly steamed crab has that transcendent effect on me, but because Octo Fishbar, Tim McKee’s anchor restaurant in the new Market House Collaborative, is unlike any other place in Minnesota.
In the Market House building in Lowertown, the former home of Heartland, a single floor is host to three, soon to be four, operations: Octo Fishbar in the open atrium, the face-to-face counters of Peterson Farms meat and Almanac fish in a little market nook, the inimitable Salty Tart bakery in a separate cafe space, and in due time, the second location of Birch’s on the Lake, a brewpub for which McKee will handle the menu. If that isn’t dizzying enough, the clusters of seating in Octo Fishbar’s open space create distinct dining environments. The giant u-shaped bar and adjacent tables seem plucked from an industrial-chic hotel lobby. Not 30 feet away, the chef’s table area feels like you’re eating fresh from some coastal fish market’s counter. The closest you’ll get to a standard dining ambiance is in the cozy area near that jellyfish mural.
Predictably, every single one of these seating areas is packed. As the James Beard Award-winning former head chef of La Belle Vie, McKee has one of the best pedigrees in the Twin Cities. His first step toward Octo began when he set down his title of culinary director of Parasole Restaurant Holdings (Chino Latino, Manny’s, etc.) to become a humble fishmonger. (He was, in fact, the senior vice president for development at the Fish Guys, but a less glamorous post nonetheless.) The move was refreshing. He bowed out of the limelight for a deep dive into the world of marine delicacies, before surfacing again here, in St. Paul, to prove that if anyone can perfect seafood in flyover country, it’s McKee.
In other words, you should expect a wait, sometimes even when you’ve made a reservation. This is where the open space and the giant bar work in Octo’s favor. Grab a cocktail or two (we recommend the El Caribe, a not-too-sweet Hurricane, and the genuinely spicy margarita), and enjoy wandering around the marketplace until the hostess retrieves you.
If the surrounds of Octo Fishbar are eclectic, the menu is a Jules Vernian jaunt, from Bologna to Boston to Osaka to Guerrero, Mexico. The unifying factor is fish and fruits de mer—and confident execution. The menu comes in two parts, the first a selection of raw and chilled dishes, the second a more standard dinner menu, with large and small plates to share, plus a succinct list of sandwiches and soups. If you’re considering skipping straight to the dinner offerings, don’t. You’ll bypass some of Octo’s most exquisite bites.
Seafood towers always impress; here they come in a range of sizes with musically themed names. (“Underwater Love by Faith No More” feeds one to two and runs $45; “Leviathan by Mastodon” could sate a party of 10 or more with 18 oysters, 12 clams, 12 mussels, three quarters of a pound of shrimp, four chilled dishes, crab claws, and jellyfish salad. It rings in at $160.) A more discreet selection of prepared chilled and raw plates ($12-$14) includes a meaty, smoky, must-try swordfish belly with sea beans, and a classic peel-and-eat shrimp with a charming comeback sauce.
Wading into the dinner menu, you’ll find more shareable plates to stoke the convivial vibe. The sneakily undersold “grilled bread” raises the bar on baskets, arriving as a plated concept with thick slices of pillowy grilled bread, drizzled in umami-rich uni butter and topped with thin radish slices and sea beans. On the far simpler side, the Shore Lunch Sunnies are a portal to a warmed dock on a July day: hot, never greasy fried sunfish fillets get a spritz of brightening lemon juice and a dip in not-too-sweet tartar sauce. You will ache for summer.
A meaty lobster roll ($21) tweaked with kewpie mayo and miso, and enhanced with swoon-worthy milk bread by Salty Tart, is a new-kid rival to the old favorite at Smack Shack. It presents beautifully, with a flourish of shaved Japanese pickles and furikake fine enough to adorn a royal wedding hat. The classic thin-cut fries are a simple but essential accessory.
No sooner have you left Boston than you’ve been plunked down in Mexico, with a bowl of seafood-heavy posole verde in front of you, or a platter of DIY hamachi collar tacos. Pick luscious bits of meaty hamachi for your tortillas, garnished with pickled onions, radishes, and smoky chipotle sauce. Best of all was the inspired combination of soft scrambled eggs with rich chorizo fat, springy baby squid, and tiny potato crisps; I’ve had nothing like it in the Twin Cities.
Whisked away to Italy, find the octopus bolognese, a clever trick of chopped octopus and roe that blend into the exact look and similar texture of a meat gravy. In this case, the roe made the sauce slightly sweet, a surprise for anyone expecting the acid and umami of tomato and beef, but the overall effect was beguiling, a twist on convention that will please an open mind.
Among other unexpected delights, the grilled bok choy with anchovy and egg was a playful twist on a Caesar salad. Order the highly poppable shishito peppers and watch the bonito flakes dance in the steam. And forget what you know of sad hors d’oeuvres shrimp toast: This version comes topped with sweet and tangy Bulldog sauce, nori, and bonito, is served with a side of pickled veggies, and will have you closing your eyes and sinking deep into your chair to maximize enjoyment. Finally, the dessert menu answers the question, “Don’t we all really just want pie for dessert?” with a resounding, “Yes! We do!” While out of step with the worldly menu that came before, the miniature pecan pie from Salty Tart is the best I’ve had since leaving the South. I will never say no to its flaky crust in the interest of flavor continuity.
Like any good “catch of the day” joint, Octo switches up its menu regularly, keeping a shark-like forward momentum in the kitchen. Some of the items mentioned here might be gone in a month. That plate of snow crab legs I lost myself in wasn’t there on our first few visits. An old menu online teases “blowfish tails” with “Buffalo sauce and nori ranch,” but we never got our paws on them. A discontinued aquavit White Russian on the cocktail menu still nags at me.
In any case, a fresh menu is preferable here—if for no other reason than it somehow quells the fear of old seafood. Every Minnesotan has at one point or another been greeted with a wrinkled-up nose or a vigorous head shake when offering a visitor some oceanic fare.
“Seafood? In Minnesota? I’ll pass.”
Ah well, let them eat some of Octo’s land-based goodies—the locally sourced Peterson ribeye should entice. Meanwhile, we’ll be floating away, blissful, carried out to sea on a raft of crab legs.
Click here to see more photos from Octo Fishbar
289 Fifth St. E., St. Paul