Fet-Fisk, Pittsburgh’s Approachable Fine Dining

Fet-Fisk is an aesthetic. It’s a Nordic seafood restaurant using Appalachian agriculture inside of what was once a legendary mom-and-pop Italian restaurant. These three things could clash in the wrong hands, but Fet-Fisk is clearly in the right hands. It’s an independent chef-owned business, run by Chef Nik Forsberg, General Manager Heather Perkins, Creative Director Sarah Laponte, Wine Lead Fred Lapka, and and Bar Lead Lex Haynesworth. The staff, the food, and the location come together to create a happy and cohesive story that maintains a sense of integrity and humanness through its presentation of plates, its interior design, and its use of language. Even their website URL is part of the Fet-Fisk quirky seafood aesthetic: fetfisk.net.

From Scrappy to Swanky

The name Fet-Fisk comes from a Swedish word meaning greasy fish or fat fish. Laponte and Forsberg settled on it because it represented the scrappy, DIY ethos of the restaurant’s origins as a popup made up of people who wanted something different. “Since we’re independently owned, we’re in control of the finances. A lot of chefs get in bed with investors, lose some of their creative agency, and then end up making sacrifices with the product to support the bottom line.” Forsberg’s vision was for something that could be accessible and approachable without sacrificing quality.

Fet-Fisk is unique in the local restaurant scene in its voice-y Instagram account, replete with all-lowercase, personable captions that highlight staff interests, on-the-ground goings on at the restaurant, and marine jokes. Forsberg ran his social media himself at one point and said part of its voice probably comes from his own sarcastic humor. The team now helps out. On Mondays, they announce a new wine for their “crispy bites” night—this past Monday was a 2021 Pyrène Cuvée Marine Blanc, for which they threw in a pairing with a tarot card, The Empress. not to toot our own horn, but we must be doing something right if staff come in and hang out on their days off, one post reads alongside an image of glasses clinking in the restaurant’s red-lit interior.

Fine Dining That’s not Just “Fine”

Given the overwhelmingly positive response to Fet-Fisk so far, some horn tooting is probably justified. People flocked to the combination of relative affordability and elevated cuisine. You can get one ounce of caviar in a coup glass with crème fraiche for $30. (It’s a sea trout caviar from Denmark, which Forsberg says is “more texturally satisfying” than traditional sturgeon caviar.) “Fine dining can feel exclusive or prohibitive. We’ve done as much as we can to keep the prices, the presentation, and the way the staff talk about the dishes, approachable.”

Forsberg’s Swedish grandmother told his father on her deathbed that her only regret in life was that she hadn’t eaten more trout caviar. That provides a memorable story staff can share with diners new to caviar to make them feel more at ease. Forsberg’s staff also walk guests through how to eat fish off the bone with the grilled branzino on the menu. “Not everyone is used to eating with their hands. We frame it as an interactive experience,” Forsberg said. This interest in being unpretentious goes back to Forsberg’s early years in the industry at The Bull & Beggar in Asheville, NC.

“My teacher was kind of pretentious but didn’t have an ego. He prided himself on knowing about food but was always open to teaching new things.” The Bull & Beggar was where Forsberg learned the French culinary style he has carried with him through the rest of his career. When Forsberg came to Pittsburgh, he pivoted towards farming, working for Tiny Seed Farm under farmer Todd Wilson. “A lot of the organizational skills I learned from the kitchen carried over to farming,” he said.

The Perfect Space

After running Fet-Fisk as a popup since 2019, Forsberg settled on a space that once housed Lombardozzi’s, a “red sauce and white tablecloth” Italian restaurant on Liberty Avenue. “I had a moment of ‘This is the space, I get it now.’ I could see what the presentation of the food was going to be and what kind of dining it would be,” Forsberg said. “Contemporary style is to be fanciful with a lot of bells and whistles. We try not to over-complicate things. There’s a lot of inherent charm baked into the aesthetic [of the space]. That really made everything click for me with the food.”

Because of its independent ownership, the Fet-Fisk staff had to work on the interior themselves, which forced Forsberg to learn to drywall and put in floors. But it all paid off. The restaurant maintained much of Lombardozzi’s interior, with some nautical flairs and homey additions like cookbooks from Forsberg’s personal collection. While Forsberg’s popups saw 160 people twice a week, Fet-Fisk now sees 160 people for dinner every night of service. It’s a refreshing success story.

Wine Pairings, Even for Solo Diners

One of the things that’s made everything come up roses for Fet-Fisk was that it didn’t rush the opening. “The concept was five years old before we even got to the opening,” Forsberg said. The menu and wine list had a long time to develop conceptually during the popup phase of the restaurant.

General Manager Heather Perkins said that Fet-Fisk bases its wines around coastal regions like Spain and Portugal, cuisines which already have a lot of seafood in their cuisine. She also looked at the salinity of the wines. Each time you dine there, Fet-Fisk offers  an oyster and wine pairing on a card separate from the menu, such as Northern Belle PEI oysters and a Spinola wine. For those not wine-inclined, Forsberg recommended a Pilsner and shot of aquavit with the garlic and lovage sausage dish.

“People come in here and they breathe a sigh of relief, like ‘oh, ok,’” Perkins said. “We welcome solo dining, and I think the fact that we see people come in by themselves is a good sign.” Forsberg added that while “we have had our share of skeptical customers, in the majority, we’ve been able to surprise and impress people.”

“Our clientele shows that Pittsburgh is ready for it. Everyone we talk to is starved for a little bit more. It’s really important now who people choose to support with the way the city is growing,” Perkins said. “People are eager to learn new things.”

Story by Emma Riva / Photography by Sarah Laponte

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