Passion Food Hospitality chef and co-proprietor Jeff Tunks. Photo by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg
Bethesda landed a big one when PassionFish opened in September. Passion Food Hospitality, an experienced restaurant group with several other metro area eateries, including PassionFish Reston, knows how to put on a stylish show.
The aquatic-themed décor, for one, is lovely, done in a soft palette of blues and gray, with pops of yellow. The nearly 10,000-square-foot space is divided into several dining areas, with no loser locations in the bunch. To the right of the entrance, circular alcoves create intimate seating, while the centrally located four-sided bar, with 26 seats, seems perpetually lively, and the blue-and-green-flecked quartz countertops provide a pretty platform for Hurricanes at happy hour. An engaging mural of swirling fish that looks like a take from Finding Nemo dominates the wall in a back room that’s also available for private parties.
PassionFish’s “Rock” sushi. Photo by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg.
The dishes, too, are visually appealing. Whether it’s the Chinese smoked lobster, with the scarlet crustacean lolling in a bright green bed of crispy spinach; a whole red snapper under a blanket of olives, capers and pickled jalapenos; or the smoked-fish spread covered with a paper film of the PassionFish logo, dishes big and small invite an Instagram.
Even the diners are a snazzy set. Some look like something out of central casting for a photo shoot on a luxury liner, svelte and fashionably dressed. The staff make a good impression, too. For the most part, they seem professional and well-trained.
As for the food, it doesn’t keep pace with the rest of the show. Some of it is seaworthy, but too many times, careless cooking rocks this boat.
Yucatan-style shrimp. Photo by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg.
Left: Chesapeake Fish Fry. Right: Warm doughnut holes with coffee Bavarian cream. Photos by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg.
On the evenings I had them, both the Kung Pao Calamari and the Char-Grilled Baby Octopus tasted like rubber replicas. And the octopus was over-accessorized with halloumi cheese, quinoa tabbouleh, tzatziki and harissa, a seriously cockamamy combination with the seafood.
Skate with salsa verde. Photo by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg.
The Herb-Crusted Halibut and a char-grilled swordfish were likewise overcooked, leaning heavily toward dry, and sections of the Chinese smoked lobster suffered from chewiness. The latter signature dish was a disappointment, especially at $39.
Other items (non-seafood) were plagued by undercooking. The tough, roasted Brussels sprouts needed considerably more time in the oven. Ditto for the way-too-crunchy apples in the apple-and-blackberry crisp.
Crispy fried oysters. Photo by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg.
Given the cooking inconsistencies, you’re better off with dishes that don’t depend on heat treatment, such as sushi. Or, head for simply prepared, thin cuts of fish, such as catch-of-the-day skate and dorade, with their buttery, white flesh. The kitchen seems more facile at brief cooking, which is often easier to do right than judging doneness for thicker pieces of protein.
Finish up by following the staff’s dessert recommendations for either the smooth, dense key lime tart topped with a toasty meringue, or the warm, pillowy doughnuts. They taste as good as they look.
Dorade with romesco sauce. Photo by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg.
The restaurant may be at the top of its game during happy hour, a fabulous deal that goes from 3 to 6:30 p.m. on weekdays, 4 to 6:30 p.m. on Saturdays and 4 to 9 p.m. on Sundays. Drinks and appetizers are $5, and you can assemble a dinner of satisfying small plates, such as Yucatan-style shrimp, which come swimming in a zesty salsa, or fried seafood fingers, called Chesapeake Fish Fry.
Daily happy hour deals include $5 drinks and appetizers at the four-sided bar. Photo by Laura Chase McGehee.
Also, a friendly and funny bartender, who made an uplifting Dark & Stormy one night, is a definite keeper.
Like a pretty mermaid, PassionFish seems more about style than substance. If it can overcome its cooking quirks, maybe it’ll get its sea legs.
PassionFish Bethesda 7187 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda, 301-358-6116, passionfishbethesda.com
OVERALL RATING: B-
FAVORITE DISHES: Yucatan-style shrimp, Chesapeake Fish Fry, crispy fried oysters, “Rock” sushi, dorade and skate (catches of the day), key lime tart, warm doughnuts
BEER, WINE AND COCKTAILS: Sixteen craft and mainstream beers on tap, plus bottles, cans and gluten-free and nonalcoholic options; extensive selection of Old and New World wines, by the glass or bottle; six sake choices (tasting flight of three for $10); appealing selection of signature cocktails, frozen drinks and mock-tails
PRICES: Raw bar and caviar service, $9 to $90; sushi, $7 to $14; hot and cold appetizers, $9 to $15; entrées, $19 to $42
SERVICE: Better-than-average host stand; service at two out of three visits was knowledgeable and professional
Carole Sugarman is the magazine’s food editor. To comment on this review, email email@example.com.