Big Fish, smaller pond
One fish, two fish, red fish, new Fish.
Fans of the Big Fish Restaurant Group may already be keen on the group’s well-established area staples, including the classic American cuisine of the Summer House Saloon on Rehoboth Avenue and farm-to-table concept of Salt Air in Rehoboth Beach; the three Big Fish Grill locations in Rehoboth Beach, Wilmington and Glen Mills, Pa.; and the Crab House, Bella Coast Italian Kitchen, Big Fish Seafood Market; and the list going on.
But despite 10 unique operations, and nine of them in the First State, a Big Fish endeavor from restauranteurs and brothers Eric and Norman Sugrue had yet to make its way down to the southernmost Delaware beaches until this past winter.
That’s when the brothers Sugrue recognized an opportunity to venture south, when the location of the former Magnolia’s restaurant on Cedar Neck Road in Ocean View made itself available.
After completely revamping the space, raising the raw bar, wrangling the dream-team staff and opening up the doors, it didn’t take long for the latest addition to the Big Fish family to go over more than well-received by locals and foodies alike, with the Grill now gearing up for its first summer season near Bethany Beach.
“All the Cedar Neckers — we’re ecstatic. We’re so happy that Big Fish is here,” said retired Southern Delaware School of the Arts teacher and long-time Big Fish fan Maria Just, who recently had her retirement party catered by the group. “I’ve always frequented the Big Fish up in Rehoboth, and now to have this venue right here in this area — we needed this. We definitely needed something like this.”
While Just and the rest of the “Cedar Neckers” crew were happy to have their own personal BFG almost right in their own personal back yards, the local gang was also pleasantly surprised to see as is the Sugrue brother’s M.O., the Ocean View location featuring its own unique details — ones not necessarily found up in Rehoboth or Wilmington or Glen Mills — ranging from the atmosphere to the menu offerings, all the while staying true to the Big Fish Grill roots first planted some 20 years ago, back in 1997.
“One thing about Big Fish is that we do our best to make each location unique,” explained General Manager Kate Lively. “Every location is different. We have all the classics here, but then we have a lot of other things that you won’t find at the other locations.”
The restaurant’s dual-level seating, featuring plush booths and brown crab paper-lined tables, its full bar wielding 10 rotating draft lines and plenty of sports-reeling flat screens, and the original iconic Magnolia’s fireplace to set the mood — it all comes with the territory of the new space.
But when it comes to culinary vision, Director of Food Operations Joe “Jo-Lo” Lopez is aiming to make his mark on the menu with some idiosyncratic offerings.
As an 11-year veteran of the group, Lopez is taking full advantage of the company’s own personal fish market in Rehoboth to help mold the menu.
With specials moving and shaking nightly, the always epicurious chef is putting the focus on keeping things fresh and local in terms of the rotating raw bar and fish board.
“He’s the man. He’s our go to guy,” said Lively. “He works really hard, obviously. He knows what he’s doing, and he’s got it down.”
Lively mentioned Big Fish’s chilled whiskey smoked salmon as one of the most raved-about appetizers so far, the dish getting cold-smoked and caramelized before being wrapped in asparagus and topped off with cucumber, capers and the house lemon cream sauce.
Rivaling the Tennessee rye-complemented ray-fin to start things off would be Big Fish’s famous Oysters Crab-Effeller, topped with lump crab meat — along with other local favorites, including but most certainly not limited to the fresh shucked and flash-fried buffalo oysters, cast-iron calamari with “Bayou sauce” for added oomph, and fire-roasted maple sriracha wings served up with lime buttermilk crema.
Over at the raw bar, the specials are subject to what’s fresh at the fish market, but some of the usual suspects on ice include a lineup of raw oysters and clams, chilled lobster and jumbo shrimp, stone crab claws and steamed jumbo shrimp, to go along with menu-staple steam pots featuring Prince Edward Island mussels and middleneck clams.
There are also plenty of soups and salads to go along with — the loaded iceberg wedge topped with bacon and gorgonzola, and a roasted red pepper lobster bisque, just to name a few — but the menu really starts to get musical when it comes to the main event, where it’s not just seafood mavens who get to draw the long straw.
“We make sure that there’s something for everyone,” Lively said, noting non-seafood related staples including a Berkshire Farms pork chop, old-fashioned chophouse burger, fried-chicken club and the “Farmer’s Plate” entrée prepared specifically with “green” eaters in mind. The family-friendly restaurant also features a full kids’ menu, and she said the chefs make sure to take customer food allergies seriously.
“We just try to make sure that everyone is comfortable here,” Lively continued. “Everybody goes the extra mile to make sure that you’re happy.”
The Big Fish Board is naturally in a state of perpetual fish-finding flux but consistently features a wide selection of fresh catches, ranging anywhere from the blacked mahi mahi with strawberry mango salsa over sweet potato mashers to the fresh Scottish salmon coming caramelized or grilled with shaved parmesan and Dijon cream with choice sides, yellowfin tuna with lobster sauce, and even the good old beer-battered Alaskan cod fish-and-chips, served up with salted fries and homemade slaw.
The non-fish-board contingent features include the broiled jumbo-lump crabcakes, dockside stew, Chesapeake tortellini, San Francisco-style cioppino, Maine lobster and crab mac-and-cheese, and New England-style lobster roll, in addition to sandwiches, and fish and shrimp tacos.
At the bar, they’ve got all the domestic favorites, a wide wine selection and even a happening happy-hour from 4 to 6 p.m., featuring both drink and food specials.
But when it comes to what’s on tap, bartender and craft brew master Matt Ellison has got his customers covered.
“The joy that I get is when someone tries something new that I recommended to them and says, ‘Hey, this is actually really good,’” Ellison said with a laugh. “Nailed it.”
With 10 beers to choose from on draft — the majority of them from local breweries a far cry from being able to afford 30-second Super Bowl spots — Ellison explained that, sometimes, a customer might not know their Elysian from their elbow in terms of where to begin. That’s when he steps in to play matchmaker.
“I like to ask them what they normally drink, and that will give me a general idea of where to guide them,” Ellison explained of his process. “We have a lot of people that really enjoy domestics, but if they’re looking for something on draft, the Fordham Gypsy is incredibly approachable.”
“Every beer has got a buddy,” he went on. “You like Blue Moon? Try Allagash. If you’re not familiar with IPAs or you don’t like hops, we’ve got a nice Belgian on tap. You want something unique? The Victory Kirsch Gose is really fantastic.”
Lot 3 from Salisbury, Md., Victory Brewing Company from Downington, Pa., and Dogfish Head from Milton are just a few of the regional barley pops to make cameos along the tap handles, but Lively said they’ll be trying new beers according to the season, with one draft line always rotating.
In addition to a selection of house libations such as fresh-squeezed orange and grapefruit crushes, jalapeño-infused spicy margaritas and “The Dirty Fish” dry martini with blue-cheese stuffed olives, Big Fish also offers a selection of oyster shooters, including the “Locals Only” with house Old Bay vodka and Bloody Mary mix, topped up with a freshly-shucked shellfish.
For Lively, however, it’s the extra-mile approach from the staff that sets Big Fish apart.
Whether it’s imparting craft beer knowledge or something as simple as friendly service with a smile, Lively said it’s the staff that’s been the biggest factor in the restaurant’s success so far and their aim to continue that success in the future.
“The major thing is the staff here is awesome. We’re really happy with everyone from the front of the house to back of the house,” she said. “Everyone gets along. They have fun with the customers. All of the personalities are meshing, and there’s a lot of different ones. Everybody’s always smiling and happy.”
“We love the bartenders, and we love the food,” added Just. “We love Matt — we’ve known Matt since he worked at Que Pasa. You can’t have a bad experience with Big Fish — they’re great.”
New to the staff and also new to the area is server Jenny Mahaffey, who also works as a personal trainer at World Gym in Ocean View and has enjoyed a new opportunity to get to know the community as the community gets to know Big Fish Grill.
“I’m from right outside of D.C., where you never really see anybody you know. Here, everybody’s kind of connected in the greatest way,” said Mahaffey. “I know people from the gym. My kids go to Lord Baltimore, and people from L.B. come in here to see everybody. I think it’s so cool.”
While the restaurant is currently open Thursday through Monday, Big Fish will go to seven days a week starting May 16, when their first summer season in Ocean View hits full swing.
And while they may have some new things in the works for the future — as is always the case with the Sugrue brothers and Big Fish Restaurant Group family — for right now, they’re just excited to be a Big Fish, now finding themselves in a slightly smaller pond to call home.
“This is just a great place to be,” said Lively. “It was perfect timing, really — right place, right time. It just worked out. We’re so excited to be here.”
Big Fish Grill is located at 30415 Cedar Neck Road in Ocean View, at the former location of Magnolia’s. The restaurant is currently open at 4 p.m. from Thursday to Monday. For more information on Big Fish, visit their website at www.bigfishoceanview.com or call the restaurant at (302) 829-8163. To inquire about catering, contact Susan Sokowski at firstname.lastname@example.org.