The Creamery’s Hook Land & Sea likely to reel in seafood lovers

From fish chicharron tacos and salmon ceviche to steamed mussels and grilled octopus, the kitchen has a deft hand with the sea's bounty.

click to enlarge Hook Land & Sea's mezcal-scented mussels win with a complex sauce. - Ron Bechtol
Ron Bechtol
Hook Land & Sea's mezcal-scented mussels win with a complex sauce.
My first experience with Hook Land & Sea was, let’s say, inauspicious.

But let’s also say that it wasn’t long after the seafood-focused spot’s appearance on the near-Pearl scene. The airy dining room was mostly empty, the kitchen hadn’t yet learned its way with classic fish and chips — the flounder was mushy, the batter coating slippery — and it also appeared to be trying too hard to be different with an escabeche take on calamari frito mixto.

That’s why we wait. Return visits sometimes reinforce the debut encounter, but they also can transcend it. Hook’s case was one of transcendence. The dining room was still mostly vacant, but the kitchen was apparently working with all hands on deck, starting with an order of fish chicharron tacos.

Fish chicharron at a conventional Mexican seafood joint can come across close to jerky — and be bony, at that. At Hook, it’s a little more user-friendly. The boneless fish pieces are more gently fried, the tamarind mustard sauce which sounds a little too tony is tangy and right-on, and the pickled pineapple pico — try saying that out loud three times — was exactly what was needed to complete the picture.

Yes, I still like the chewy-bony version with a whiplash of Valentina, but I will happily add this one to the lexicon, tender corn tortillas and all.

The opposite of a fresh and pliant corn tortilla is a crisply fried one, especially if it’s tinted red. Such is the foundation for the salmon ceviche tostada, which Hook Land & Sea served on a blue plate for punchy color contrast. The kitchen also likes playing with tweezers and tiny micro-greens, which add to the color palette.

Don’t be afraid of the ceviche aspect of the salmon here. The lime-based marinade just tames the salmon’s fattiness a tad. Tobiko, or flying fish roe, wasn’t much in evidence, but it you look carefully bits of cured egg yolk can be uncovered. The curing is usually done on a bed of salt and sugar followed by a drying in a very low oven. The addition isn’t something that would have occurred to me, but the egg does add unexpected notes of subtle umami.

Noting, just for the record, that unlike cured eggs, octopus is becoming as ubiquitous on menus of late as pork belly has been for some time, I’ll nevertheless gladly revisit Hook’s grilled version. The dish manages to hit that perfect sweet spot of just-tender-enough. Is the fresh-tasting corn puree on which the artfully curled tentacle is bedded strictly necessary? Well, why not? It plays suave to some scattered bits of chorizo and drizzles of chili oil and was a fine foil for some fancy “marbled” potatoes. All in all, another win.

Given good mussels and a little white wine, it’s almost impossible to mess up a bowl of the mollusks. Hook does more than merely not mess up with its mezcal-scented rendition. Pro tip: ask for more of the good, toasted bread from the get-go. You’ll want it for sopping and mopping the complex sauce that inevitably follows pulling the plump mussels from their shells. Winner number four.

There’s a perfunctory wine list complemented by a few beers and cocktails, but, as Hook is part of The Creamery, a larger food and nightlife complex centered on the former Borden Dairy near Pearl, here’s a thought: drink judiciously at dinner and follow up with a visit to one of the new bars.

Your choices are Amelia and its rooftop annex Lunatique or the subterranean “ultra-lounge” that is Easy Baby.

Easy Baby seemed like more of a commitment than a coda, so Amelia, an apparent homage to the long-lost aviatrix of the same name, it was. The space, with its echoes of Hotel Emma’s steampunk-styled Sternewirth, is moodily stylish and sports a few vestiges of the old Borden’s in the form of enshrined equipment. But if we’re to take the name as a suggestion, two of the menu’s cocktails are obvious choices, the Paper Plane and the Aviation.

When I make the gin- and maraschino-based Aviation at home, it turns out a little more lavender from the crème de violette, but there were no complaints about the taste. The bourbon and amaro-based Paper Plane was equally well executed.

Earhart’s final resting place may never be known, but both Hook and Amelia are easy to find and worth the modest effort do so.

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