Most of my fish is served raw; in vibrant ceviches or laid delicately over shining pearls of palm pressed short grain rice. Some of my fish is grilled, crossed with charred diamonds that give way to buttery, warm centers; or blackened, embedded in corn tortillas with a mandarin salsa and purple cabbage slaw.
But fried? Hardly never and I decided to see if, in my pursuit for new exciting presentations and flavors, I was missing something fundamental.
I left south Charlotte, passing restaurant after restaurant, until I reached the University area. The Harbor Inn is in an office park with medical practices. From the outside, what makes the brick building of the Harbor Inn less retail and more restaurant is the telltale ship tackle, thick braided rope in sailor’s knots that formed a railing leading up a designated Take Out door. Inside, the same bright teal of clear water shallows covered the walls.
All of these components along with fish tanks, and cartoon sea creature paintings, seem to be a Southern seafood restaurant staple. What was unexpected was a glass case filled with mountainous cakes. Dense layers suspended over equally thick frosting. Carrot cake studded with walnuts; a sable cake with ornate shavings and a sign that read “chocolate”, as if there was any doubt of what you were looking at.
My order arrived: broiled salmon, fried catfish, fried oysters and oyster stew. What little interaction I had with front staff was both pleasant and efficient. Carrying three boxes back home, my car did not smell of cooking oil that carried the scent of everything fried in the history of ever. I could not smell the fish-a good sign if there ever was one. What I smelled was citrus. Wedges of lemon, nestled against hot, crispy fillets waiting to be squeezed settled for giving off their scent the entire trip home.
The fish, both the salmon and catfish, held up reasonably well for the ride. The hushpuppies probably waited for the fish and were not at their peak-but I hedge that with most hushpuppies are meant to be eaten immediately instead of being ferried from the University area to South Charlotte.
That being said, they were cornmeal, textured and would not have been neglected had I sat inside the Harbor Inn for my meal. The salmon was a surprise. Not my medium rare- but only because I did not ask, I am sure.
Regardless, tender and not the least bit dried out. Cooked in such a diplomatic way that any patron from the age of eight to 88 would have been pleased. The fried oysters were plump with warm rotund bellies still full of the ocean and yet somehow sweet. When you held them in your fingers, they dipped towards the backs of your knuckles and you could feel the weight.
The catfish fillets were large, crispy and made for dipping into their homemade tartar sauce. My only regret was the oyster stew. I expected something akin to a chowder, thickened with roux. Instead what I received was a very thin savory milk with a few oysters.
No, on second thought, I also regret not getting a piece of that self-proclaiming “chocolate” cake. Though, I doubt it would have made it home. All in all, in the array of preparations of seafood, there is a place for battered and deep fried. You might just have to drive towards the university area to get there.