Here’s a question for you: What the devil is a great oyster doing hanging around in Rochester, Minnesota? There’s not a clear and easy answer to that question. The query itself is posed by the relatively new Pescara, a fine-dining seafood restaurant operating in a Doubletree hotel within ironic spitting distance of a Red Lobster.
As a point of context: I was an East Coast oysterhound for six-plus years, eating oysters of all shapes, sizes, and varieties from Maine to D.C. and all points in between. The specimens served at Pescara (the specific variety now escapes me, but they hailed from the West Coast) were tangy, briny, sweet, and, overall, thoroughly lovely — soundly thumping the adequate but uninspired oysters I’ve eaten at Stella’s, Barbette, and Oceanaire, and standing up to the oysters served at respectable joints like the Old Ebbitt Grill in D.C. and B&G Oysters in Boston’s Back Bay. That this feat was accomplished in Rochester, MN is both a dark tribute to the petro-guzzling modern industrial food complex, and a miracle worth celebrating. Perhaps they’re flown in along with the transplant organs used over at the Mayo Clinic? No matter. At $2.50 a pop, they were cheap for the taste.
Dinner at Pescara isn’t for the faint of wallet, but if a seafood meal of this quality were available at a steal, something would, in fact, be seriously amiss. From the night’s first taste — an austere-looking and seductive-tasting Obovoid Empirical Russian Stout served in a chilled glass — to the last, Pescara had a button-down sense of quality that was downright cosmopolitan.
Much of this was a reflection of the restaurant’s staff, which was responsive, attentive, thoughtful, and emotionally present from check-in to farewell. Here’s an anecdote: It’s the end of the meal — time for a chocolate souffle. The waiter asks if I’d like coffee. “No, I’ve got this,” I say, gesturing toward my second Obovoid. This could be interpreted as meaning: “I don’t need coffee, I’m going to have beer with dessert.” That would be just fine, but I was driving at the fact that the coffee notes in the beer would be a find stand-in for coffee itself. The waiter says, “Ah! The coffee flavor in the beer! Excellent,” before strolling off to bring dessert. Having someone who knows the menu’s flavors and is paying attention — as our waiter was, throughout the meal — is a real pleasure.
The restaurant’s menu is also pleasing, driven as it is by a pencil-marked checkbox system that indicates which of the 15 or so regularly carried fresh fish are in stock on a given night. The seafood emphasis is rigorous and committed, the only way to make this particular style of eating work so far from the world’s oceans. Sustainable fish isn’t a primary emphasis of Pescara, and it was easy to dismiss as an empty platitude the waiter’s claim that the restaurant serves sustainable items whenever possible. But when the menu’s offerings were checked against Seafood Watch, the majority came back as Good or Best choices.
And the flavor was there. Scallops ($25) came five to a serving. They were delicate and buttery, prepared beautifully (almost raw on the interior with a seared brown exterior), served with a fond blanc pan sauce and minced onions.
A mellow sauteed Costa Rican Mahi Mahi ($22) was moist and married perfectly with a lemon buerre blanc, neither losing its flavor to the sauce nor overpowering it. All of Pescara’s fresh fish options come with a diner’s choice of cooking styles (grilled, sauteed, broiled, seared) and eight different sauces; you can captain your own ship, or rely on the waitstaff for a sound recommendation.
A Green Apple and Amablu Cheese salad ($8) also merits mention. It had a cinnamon-kissed depth of spice that was both surprising and wonderfully matched with the dried cherries and toasted walnuts that were tossed amid the greens and a buttermilk herb dressing. This was a Finish-Every-Bit-of-Food-on-the-Plate salad, a rare and wonderful beast, and a sign that Pescara is dotting its I’s and crossing its T’s.
Finally, a chocolate souffle with berries and cream ($5) tasted suspiciously like a warm-from-the-oven fudgey brownie, which is both declasse and freakin’ fantastic. Through some trick of the cream sauce, the blueberries and raspberries actually married well with the chocolate — berries and chocolate are often at loggerheads, but not in this case.
Perhaps you don’t get down to Rochester often, and perhaps you don’t typically order seafood. Pescara offers an effective — heck, urgent — reason to change your ways.
BEST BET: Oysters. Not clear what deal with the devil was signed to get these things to Rochester in such good shape, but order them.
Seafood in Rochester, MN
150 S Broadway Ave
Rochester, MN 55904
OWNER / CHEF: Pat Woodring / Scott Foster with Dan Calloway, Erik Paulson, Anthony Pester
Mon-Thu 6:30-10am 11am-3pm 5-10pm
Fri 6:30-10am 11am-3pm 5-11pm
Sat 7-11am 11am-3pm 5-11pm
Sun 10am-2pm (brunch) 5-10pm
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: Yes / Yes for Weekends
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $20-35