So you wind up back at OCTO Fish Bar, contemplating pacu ribs and Skuna Bay salmon. Maybe you were just here; I trust the menu will still arouse curiosities. Maybe you’re not even hungry; you could eat, though. If you’ve dipped your toes into OCTO Fish Bar, great – but I suggest taking a plunge.
OCTO Fish Bar is the central attraction of Lowertown St. Paul’s Market House Collaborative, a project spearheaded by Tim McKee of La Belle Vie fame (or Masu Sushi fame – or, at this point, Market House fame). In addition to OCTO, this new shebang includes retail space for Peterson Meats and Almanac Fish; a separate enclosed Salty Tart location; and a soon-to-be-open extension of Long Lake brewpub Birch’s on the Lake. Market House officially opened last October, in the space previously occupied by Heartland.
According to this Pioneer Press story, the restaurant is called “OCTO” because it’s the eighth restaurant McKee has created. Shane Oporto, McKee’s last head chef at La Belle Vie, is McKee’s right-hand man again at OCTO. The restaurant’s logo is a Figure-8 formed with tentacles. Turned sideways, of course, it’s an infinity loop.
And so you clip-clomp right past the host counter and around this “collaborative.” It’s got the big wooden beams and exposed ceiling vent work. There are bubbly dining room lights, and jellyfish floating in place on a mural. It’s got subtle sophistication, but there’s also a metal shark. The host or hostess might catch up with you and ask if you’ve made a reservation. Oops.
It’s open seating at the bar, though, so you’re free to plop down as long as they’ve got a chair free to prop you. You’re given three menus: the cocktails and raw bar on one; happy hour on another; and the dinner menu on another. It can be a lot to keep track of, but I believe in you.
If you’re off the street during happy hour, you really should indulge in the $4.50 steamed buns before anything else. The pork belly steamed bun is nice, but get shrimp. You’ll get that smooth pillowy bun either way, but the shrimp offers a rich mayonnaise (Kewpie mayonnaise, to be precise) and soft cilantro funk.
If you’re in that Ozzy Osbourne head-biting mood, shrimp steamed buns will be especially satisfying.
Then you settle into a warm, well-spiced plate of octopus bolognese. If you’re accustomed to your local fire department’s $10 all-you-can-eat pasta feeds, yes: this $16 portion might induce sticker shock. But if you’re accustomed to your local fire department’s $10 all-you-can-eat pasta feeds, this $16 portion will open a portal to a previously unexplored dimension. Within 24 hours, I had a friend ordering this bolognese.
Have you ever eaten a rack of fish ribs? You can do it right now at OCTO. I’m talking about those pacu ribs. Does the meat pull effortlessly from the bone? No, the bones pull effortlessly from the meat. McKee gets his fish from right over there – Almanac Fish – and you get fresh, squeaky clean meat. My pacu was a shade of white usually accompanied on a TV screen by sparkle stars and the word “AFTER” beneath it. I’ll ask they go light on the soy sauce when I have these again, but I will have these again.
The popular thing at OCTO, I was told by the bartender, is their lobster roll. It’s topped with furikake seaweed and miso, served with fries on the side. Otherwise, you can start with a shore lunch or DIY halibut tacos. There are dishes with oysters, salmon, and catfish, too. There’s also a bok choy, with anchovies and something called “lardo.”
Yes, they have craft beer on tap; and yes, there’s a cocktail menu. There is no set non-alcoholic cocktail menu, but the bartender will happily whip you up something at your request. I had a perfectly-balanced ginger and lime drink with a splash of simple syrup. Another time, I had the same thing with caramelized pineapple.
All of the menus can be viewed on the OCTO Fish Bar website, but many items rotate seasonally. Yes, they serve brunch on the weekends.
OCTO offers a $10 beer and brat special during Saints games (the beer is Third Street Brewing’s Minnesota Gold, which I don’t really enjoy). They’ll also prepare meats you purchase from Almanac and Peterson counters.
Market House Collaborative is the latest building block of an increasingly vibrant Lowertown district of St. Paul. The building is across the street from a farmers market site and a few steps from CHS Field. Walk outside after happy hour and the Saints pre-game shenanigans will be well under way. Walk outside in the evening and the stadium glows.
You’re not far, either, from the criminally under-appreciated Mears Park. Do you have any idea how many people are tending flowers in there? A square block of paradise, that park.
And maybe you happen to walk that far and realize you left your credit card behind. So you wind up back at OCTO Fish Bar, contemplating pacu ribs and Skuna Bay salmon …