Chef Tim McKee brings thrilling seafood to Lowertown
Tuna poke and smoked swordfish belly with peel & eat shrimp
photos by terry brennan
Joy: The bar area of what was once Lowertown St. Paul’s stately Heartland restaurant has been reborn as Octo Fishbar. Complete with shark mobile and jellyfish mural, it’s James Beard–lauded chef Tim McKee’s eighth restaurant.
Jason: Whenever you attach “award-winning chef Tim McKee” to a project, expectations soar. I was dying to know: Would Octo thrill like McKee’s late, great, four-star La Belle Vie?
Chef Tim McKee
Joy: Well, instead of La Belle Vie’s thrills of luxurious ingredients, high-end art, and formal service, Octo Fishbar wows with daring dishes such as jellyfish salad.
Jason: Meals begin with an order from the “raw and chilled” menu, which includes classics such as oysters on the half shell and peel-and-eat shrimp, as well as unexpected treats including smoked swordfish belly with a fatty, unctuous texture enlivened by olive oil, radish, and sea beans. There are also seafood towers ranging from $45 to $160.
Joy: A couple of the seafood towers include that jiggly, sesame- and soy-dressed jellyfish. Even for those unfamiliar with the aquatic animal’s squiggly, oddly crunchy texture, it’s a can’t-miss dish.
Jason: The shore lunch sunnies were one of my favorites: a $14 plate of sheer nostalgia—plump, lightly fried panfish just like you used to pull from the lake as a kid. But the kitchen displays some of its best work with dishes such as the soft scrambled eggs, which are incredibly creamy and light and have tiny baby squid peppered throughout. The first bite transported me to an ocean-side seafood shack on the East Coast.
Joy: The eggs are served with red-orange chorizo oil that lends a powerful depth of flavor. For the perfect bite, swipe a hunk of uni butter–slathered bread into the creamy, spicy eggs.
Jason: The restaurant’s biggest drawback is its ambiance. I have some serious reservations. It’s located in the central, open area of the historic Market House building, in the middle of what will ultimately be Market House Collaborative: a food hall with tenants lining the small stalls that surround Octo and its bar. But for now, many of the spots are still empty, and it’s off-putting to dine in a space beset by “FOR LEASE” signs. Plus, the restaurant is lit as brightly as the nearby meat- and fish-market spaces—too bright. I know McKee is going for casual, but the vibe is a little too “workplace cafeteria” for me.
Joy: I agree that the lights are too bright. But that didn’t stop me from lingering over a slice of the famous banana cream pie from Michelle Gayer’s Salty Tart. It was a cloud of cream and lush banana: heaven.
Jason: Even if Octo doesn’t rise to the level of La Belle Vie, it’s still very good.
Octo Fishbar Quick Tips
Parking: There is no valet, so wear comfortable shoes as parking lots are at least a block away
Meat Eaters: There are limited pork, beef, and chicken dishes available; meat can also be bought in the market’s butcher shop and prepared on the spot
Price: Relatively affordable, but you can also spend big on those luxe seafood towers
289 Fifth St. E., St. Paul, octostp.com, 651-202-3415