A warming bowl of thick, creamy clam chowder.
  • A warming bowl of thick, creamy clam chowder.
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I'm never sure how many San Diegans have discovered Fifty Seven Degrees. The huge wine bar and art gallery offers tasty wine and beer, and enough space that I've never failed to find an open table for a date or casual meeting. Despite a central location, the place is off the beaten path, squeezed between the airport and the 5 freeway, just west of Mission Hills.

Fishmonger's Market & Seafood Bar

1735 Hancock Street, Suite R, Little Italy

Well, there's now a second reason to seek it out. Fishmonger's Market & Seafood Bar opened in the same property this fall, carving out 5,000 square feet of dining room, patio, and market counter space at the south end of the wine bar.

Raw oysters topped with fruit, micro-basil, and caviar

Raw oysters topped with fruit, micro-basil, and caviar

Fans of the fish market/restaurant concept may wonder who had the nerve to open one on the wrong side of the highway from Food Network-famous Blue Water Seafood Market & Grill. That would be another Food Network celebrity: Frank “Frankie the Bull” Terzoli, inaugural winner of the network's cooking competition show, Cutthroat Kitchen.

A wine bar and seafood restaurant, sharing a large space off the freeway.

A wine bar and seafood restaurant, sharing a large space off the freeway.

Terzoli's big personality made him a favorite on season 2 of Top Chef back in 2006, and he's gone on to open restaurants including Bull's Smokin' BBQ in Bay Park.

However, besides being a restaurateur and TV chef, Terzoli has seen virtually every side of the seafood industry, from growing up working on local fishing boats to wholesaling fish on a massive scale for his job with a national importer.

But aside from a glass counter showing off fileted fish and piles of prawns, Fishmonger's operates differently from Blue Water. Rather than follow the San Diego fish market model, where you line up at a counter to order a choice of fish in taco, salad, or sandwich form, Fishmonger's adopts a European approach: white linens, table service, and a menu packed to the gills with fish prepared with a loftier culinary mindset.

Take the crudo bar. You cannot go wrong ordering the basics, particularly a selection of oysters served with cocktail sauce or mignonette. But this bar aims to ramp up the creativity, effectively resulting in Mediterranean style sushi, such as a cuttlefish caprese that features tomato and micro-basil, while swapping a piece of raw fish for mozzarella. Though not as pretty as the strawberry oyster — dressed with mango, garlic oil, and lumpfish caviar — the familiar inspiration makes it less convoluted introduction to the adventurous crudo concept, as well as the slippery sweetness of raw cuttlefish itself.

The menu covers sandwiches and seafood pastas and grilled, pan-seared, and fried filets of fish, plus a smoked Alaskan salmon treat dubbed "Indian candy," that's maple cured and smoked to produce sweet, jerky-like strips — also known as salmon candy, from the indigenous traditions of the Pacific Northwest.

My favorite dishes so far have been the richer, comfort dishes, in particular a decadent lobster macaroni and cheese that was devoured so quickly I didn't have time nab a photo. But if you're looking for an introduction to the Fishmonger's menu on a cold day this winter, I'd start you with a hefty $9 serving of its New England style clam chowder.

A lunch conversation with my mom rarely slows down, but it came to a stop as we both spooned bits of clam and potato from large bowls of creamy broth culled from a roux with onion, celery, and red bell pepper. I can't compare the hearty, warming soup to the east coast chowders that inspired it, but I've tried clam chowders all along the west coast, and never found one thicker.

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