The Arena District's new fish vendor offers fresh, flavorful fare

An inviting ocean aroma wafted up to my sun-splashed face as I lazed about on a warm autumn afternoon while a bouncy pop tune echoed faintly from a nearby bar. After treating myself to a sip of crisp white wine, I gazed back to the source of the salt-tinged fragrance. 

I wasn’t on vacation — unless you consider the Arena District a getaway destination — so I wasn’t turning toward a large body of water. No, the maritime scent that had me momentarily daydreaming emanated from a bowl of simple-but-delicious soup I’d just purchased from Coastal Local Seafood.

Oceanfront holidays are currently out of reach for me — and will be until the persistent waves of coronavirus outbreaks recede for good. Thanks to Coastal Local Seafood, though, I have a new go-to place where I can enjoy a taste of beach-style eating in landlocked Central Ohio.   

Coastal’s reputation as the preferred seafood purveyor for some of Columbus’ best eateries preceded its recent entrance into the North Market stall vacated by The Fish Guys. With Coastal settled into that convenient North Market spot, home cooks have easy access to the same fish as local top chefs, much of which was swimming not long before Coastal displayed it on ice. 

Cooks, non-cooks and lazy tweeners like me also have access to Coastal’s fresh-caught flavors in its made-to-order dishes, which are listed on a chalkboard above the service counter. Expect about a half-dozen entrees, plus a few soups, sides and shareable snacks. 

The menu changes frequently, but some items appear to be always available, such as the Maine Lobster Roll ($17). In fairly typical Coastal fashion, the pristine seafood isn’t drowned out with bells and whistles. The sandwich was just a load of impressive lobster meat — bound with minimal mayo and gently accented by celery and fresh dill — overflowing from a buttery split roll that was toasted until wonderfully crunchy. What’s not to love?     

Coastal’s Fish and Chips ($13) is similarly among the best in town and another triumph of simplicity. Three pieces of tender, flaky and delicious catch-of-the-day fillets — sole in my case — were enveloped in a first-rate beer batter and skillfully fried to crackly golden-brown. Crispy, hand-cut, skinny fries enhanced with garlic held up their end of the bargain. 

Those good fries are sometimes sold as a side ($3). Same deal for a salad ($3) assembled with very respectable ingredients that, although underdressed, was far from an afterthought.    

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I jokingly referred to the Crabcake Bites ($14, served with fries) as “falafel of the sea” because they arrived as deep-fried balls with crispy-and-craggy shells. But they were no joke. Unlike so many filler-heavy crab cakes, these were about 90 percent crab meat; crackers and flecks of parsley fleshed out the not-too-salty mix.

Plenty of shellfish went into the Cajun Crab Dip, too ($12; served with a hunk of heavily buttered and toasted good bread). So did a wealth of creamy-and-cheesy dairy. Bottom line: A little of this extremely rich treat with an undercurrent of botanical heat went a long way.

Farmers cheese and “wasabi-lime crema” contributed less-impactful doses of dairy to the fine Tuna Tacos ($15 for three). Those garnishes showcased, rather than competed with, planks of edge-seared, high-grade, ruby-red ahi tuna. The good-flavored tacos also included lukewarm flour tortillas, red onion strips, a pickled-cabbage slaw, plus interesting sweet and tangy notes. 

Daily soup specials ($6 and $8), such as the gumbo-like Stuffed Bell Pepper with Sea Bass and Monkfish referenced in my intro, are recommended. In fact, slurping that aforementioned zesty stew at a sunny outdoor table with an adult beverage purchased from The Barrel and Bottle (located in the market) tasted almost like a momentary seaside vacation.