(Left) Chef James London changes his menu daily, based on availability from local fishermen and farmers; (Right) amberjack crudo with blood orange segments, mint leaves, and scarlet turnip
By day, on the northeast corner of Coming and Bogard streets, the tall windows at Chubby Fish are lined with pure ocean blue. Floor-to-ceiling, wave-like cobalt velour drapes hang shut, like the curtains on an idle theater stage. But by 5 p.m., the drapes fling open for Chubby Fish’s oyster hour. Guests stream into the compact dining room for dollar oysters, featured two-dollar beers and six-dollar glasses of wine.
In Paris, a restaurant this size would cram twice as many tables into the same modest space. But this is not Paris. On a classic side street of residential Charleston, business partners Geoffrey Shyatt and chef James London give their guests elbow room and ample table space, perfect for sharing small plates. The downside of limited seating (40 altogether, including a small bar top) can be the wait time. On each of my visits though, I lucked out within minutes.
As its name implies, Chubby Fish celebrates seafood. The pale blue glassware and a chandelier fashioned from a wooden ship’s wheel echo a nautical theme. Tufted leather swivel stools separate the dining room from the open kitchen, where local oyster growers are invited from time to time to shuck their catch and converse with guests about the sustainable oyster farming world.
A nautical theme perks up this quiet corner in Elliotborough.
So yes, seafood reigns supreme here: oysters, caviar, crab claws, crudos, spicy shrimp, smoked mackerel, and at least one variety of whole fish every night (note: they’re closed on Sundays and Mondays). The small plates are whimsically composed, like the meaty fish collars prepared in the style of fried chicken, or the lightly battered tempura blowfish tails with a soy-infused beurre blanc sauce.
But to characterize the restaurant as strictly seafood-centric would sell Chubby Fish short. One could easily devote an entire meal here to an array of land-sourced delicacies. My group shared a winter squash salad, with charred radicchio and tender wedges of petite dumpling squash over smoked, puréed garlic—a savory, comforting, wintry dish balanced in acidity. Fanned slices of smoked duck breast boasted skin so crisp the layer of fat beneath melted like butter. Pan-roasted sunchokes garnished with nasturtium leaves get double play, with a dual preparation of smooth and earthy sunchoke purée nestling a vivid nasturtium-parsley oil.
Chef London’s combinations of spices and herbs give the menu a global spin, from North Africa to the tropics. Moroccan-inspired lamb ribs, dry rubbed and slow smoked, slide off the bone, even better when dredged through the peppery and nutty Spanish romesco. Blue crab claws get a Caribbean treatment with cumin and coriander jerk butter, paired with crusty slices of farmhouse bread. The chili garlic shrimp arrives piping hot and spicy, heaped with slivered ginger, paper-thin fresno chili rings, and fresh cilantro, served over a bed of rice with a bold drizzle of chili oil. There are Japanese nods too, in the tosazu rice vinegar mignonette that accompanies the raw oysters and in the nori buttered shiitake toast (made from Carolina Gold rice bread from Tiller Baking Co.) topped with a sprinkle of sunflower seeds. Meanwhile, the amberjack crudo leans almost Nordic in inspiration, with sliced scarlet turnip, blood orange segments, and picked mint: simple, fresh, and clean.
(Left to right) Spice-rubbed lamb ribs atop romesco sauce; whole grilled pompano with ginger-scallion sauce; and wahoo filet with James Island grapefruit, fennel, and tarragon
While a globetrekker in flavor, London stays local with his ingredients. American Southern influences peek through in many pleasant twists that kept me guessing. Is that turmeric in the comeback sauce? Pickled fennel on the snapper?
I did find myself at one point breaking into a slight spice-induced sweat. London does not skimp on the heat. But this is no Scoville scale-type scorch. Warmth is thoughtfully developed to create a depth that excites the palate.
A carefully chosen wine list and local beer selection pair harmoniously with the menu (we loved the Chateau de Chinon; or try Fatty’s double IPA). And the desserts, ingeniously crafted by Cynthia Wong of Life Raft Treats, are not to be missed
Life Raft Treats’ ice cream “drumstick”
The selection changes often, but my group split a local satsuma and orange sherbet ice cream sandwich made with chestnut flour molasses cookies, along with a chocolate and cinnamon ice cream churro taco. We didn’t have room for the Not Fried Chicken—Wong’s signature dessert. It's the spitting image of a fried chicken drumstick, filled with waffle ice cream and a chocolate cookie “bone” encased in a sweet, crunchy exterior that neighboring guests seemed to nibble on with glee.
But Chubby Fish is the kind of place you’ll want to return to anyway, for the treats you missed, or for the plates that surprise you again and again.
The Draw: Raw bar and fresh seafood in a stylish, convivial neighborhood eatery
The Drawback: No reservations; street parking only
Don’t Miss: Crudo, fried fish collar, and chili garlic shrimp