In the excellent 2007 documentary, “How to Cook Your Life,” Zen master and chef Edward Espé Brown said, “The food will taste better when the cook is joyful.” I always think of this when I go out to eat. I believe food has a mood — and that it takes on the energy of its maker.
At Pescados in Midlothian, I’m fairly certain chef Greg Smiley is, in fact, grinning broadly whenever he’s in the kitchen and that he’s hired a bright and fun staff — maybe some have a Montessori background and think in inventive ways. The food that comes out of the kitchen is all of these things — and it makes a 25-minute drive from North Side to the Village Marketplace Shopping Center in Midlothian worth it.
Owners Smiley and Tina Manly recently celebrated 13 years with a full renovation, thanks to help from Ian Kelley of Sugar Shack Donuts. He’s a longtime friend who’s helping them refine Pescados’ model for expansion into Charlottesville.
The new interior is dim and open with just enough touches in its decor to hint at the theme — Latin Caribbean with plenty of seafood on the menu. The interior design isn’t winning any awards, but it also doesn’t matter — who cares about the setting when you know how to prepare so tender a fish?
There’s a separate bar, several dining areas and a patio with great evening light that’s just about perfect for a brief but awesome weekday happy hour that includes $3 deals from 5-6 p.m. The drinks are straight out of an island Tiki bar — Red Stripe beer, rum punch and tropical fruit margaritas. Don’t worry, craft beer people, you’re covered, and so are wine drinkers. These selections appeal to a crowd with casual to slightly selective palate.
The menu is relatively large — 12 appetizers and 12 entrees mostly focused on seafood that is clearly fresh. There’s no rubberiness, mushiness or fishiness. Nothing is undercooked or overcooked.
One of my favorite dishes is the poblano salmon ($23), a pan-seared filet that’s so delicate that it pulls rather than breaks apart. And there’s invention with each part of the meal, too. Not just mashed potatoes but arugula pesto potato mash. Not just vegetable medley but colorful ribbons of zucchini and carrots floating over a smoky poblano sauce. It’s pretty to look at and it’s so good to eat.
Puppy drum ($28) is a special one night, and it’s similarly thoughtful in preparation. The firm white fish is peppered, baked and placed in vertical architecture with its accompaniments. Creamy risotto is the firmament, then spears of grilled asparagus and a snowcap of flaky crabmeat. Sweet pickled red onions are topped on high. And then there’s the lime cream sauce that’s so lush you’ll want to inhale it, but so rich you won’t, because you can’t.
This buttery sauce shows up elsewhere too, notably on the enchilada Acapulco ($23), itself a study on just how rich one meal can be. Shrimp, crab cake and caramelized onions bound in a flour tortilla are lathered with the sauce.
That’s not all. Cheesy fried potato cakes and meaty slabs of grilled zucchini on the side could be their own light meal. Normally, I’d power through, maybe unbutton the pants if need be, but I get through half of a lunch-sized portion and am forced to save the rest for later.
On the appetizer menu, rings of grilled calamari ($12) are charred and tender, then tossed with crisp red peppers, onions and lemon wedges. Don’t even bother with the fried version since you can have this. Arepas ($8) come three to a plate. Small cornmeal patties are heaped with shredded pork and two sauces on the side, but it’s the brilliant green basil jalapeño dip I’m entirely focused on.
Beets, Sweets, Tweets ($9) is one crazy fun salad. These are little nests of crunchy potato shreds and fried-chicken pieces over sliced beets and sweet potatoes. There are microgreens atop and a drizzle of guava dressing. There are so many textures and flavors.
Skip the so-so guacamole ($3) before the meal and get your avocado fix with the tart ($6) at the end. It is a dream — a beautiful glossy, limey dream. The buttery avocado lends texture rather than taste, and it’s like an incredibly creamy key lime pie with a sugary graham cracker crust that sings in your mouth. Pure joy. S
13126 Midlothian Turnpike
Mondays 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-9 p.m.; Tuesdays-Fridays 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-10 p.m.; Saturdays 5-10 p.m.