It’s been quite a year for Atlanta restaurateurs Nhan Le and Skip Engelbrecht, which included the wildly successful opening of seafood market and cafe Fishmonger in Poncey-Highland (leading to a second location this fall) and the closure of critically acclaimed restaurant 8ARM on Ponce.
But 2022 is ending on an even higher note than Le and Engelbrecht could have imagined, after serving former President Barack Obama Fishmonger’s best selling fish filet prior to a rally Thursday for Senator Raphael Warnock (D, incumbent). Eater Atlanta also just named Fishmonger the Breakout Hit of 2022.
Obama rolled into town Thursday evening to help get the vote out for Warnock ahead of the runoff election on December 6 against the Senator’s Republican opponent, Herschel Walker. He fired up the crowd during a stump speech at the Pratt Pullman District in Kirkwood. Before the rally, Obama’s team called Fishmonger in Kirkwood to cater the 44th president’s green room. And the restaurant’s Caesar salad topped with its delicious blackened grouper was Obama’s dish of choice.
There’s always a food angle — even in politics.
“One of his people called and told me what he wanted to eat and asked how much time I needed once he lands to get the food ready,” Engelbrecht says. “We had 25 minutes to do six meals and then plate four more from the time he left the airport to the time he got here. Like, you’re in, you’re out. Go, go, go. It was pretty serious and stressful, but also cool.”
In total, Fishmonger served six of Obama’s staff members, along with the former president and three guests at a table in a secure location at the rally. It’s unclear just who those three people dining with Obama were, or if Warnock was among his dinner guests. Fishmonger also served lobster rolls to the crowd at Thursday’s rally.
Let’s rewind to understand how and why this fish filet became so popular in Atlanta, which most people enjoy as a sandwich.
Fishmonger chef Brad Forsblom doesn’t skimp on the portion size for the delicate filet of perfectly seasoned blackened grouper. Forsblom dips the fish in nori butter and sprinkles it with a blend of ten spices before it hits a hot skillet to crisp the skin. The spice blend features everything from Sichuan pepper, cumin, fennel, and black pepper, to cinnamon, cloves, coriander, and fresh onion bits. The mixture is roasted and then ground.
“So, if you think about it, the seasoning is actually getting cooked twice,” says Engelbrecht. “You’re roasting it once, then putting it on a sandwich and cooking it again to give it that super blackened crust.”
The fish is topped with zesty Florida sauce, an herb salad, and pickled peppers and served on a buttery toasted bun smeared with nori butter.
Atlanta magazine’s Christiane Lauterbach called the grouper sandwich “marvelous” (indeed high praise from the city’s toughest restaurant critic.) The Atlanta Journal-Constitution followed suit, when dining critic Henri Hollis dubbed the sandwich “worthy of its popularity.”
Lauterbach and Hollis are hardly alone in their praise for the grouper sandwich at Fishmonger. During its first week in business in Poncey-Highland, the tiny kitchen served nearly 60 grouper sandwiches a day. It quickly became the restaurant’s signature dish, with some people on social media claiming it to be the “best fish sandwich they’ve ever had” and the “best fish sandwich in Atlanta.”
The buttery bun and sandwich accoutrements certainly enhance this flavor-packed fish sandwich, but the filet is still a standout on its own.
Prior to the rally on Thursday night, the question was raised on Twitter as to whether Obama should head to Fishmonger to order a blackened grouper sandwich.
“Who’s gonna tell obama to get the blackened grouper sandwich after the rally,” a fortuitous post on Twitter reads.
While Engelbrecht himself was not able to meet the former president Thursday evening, Pratt Pullman District owners Adam Rosenfelt and Maureen Meulen did have the honor. Meulen says when she asked Obama about Fishmonger’s blackened grouper, he gave his seal of approval.
Folks continue to tag the former president on Fishmonger’s Instagram post in hopes he’ll offer up a quick review of the restaurant’s blackened grouper. Eater also reached out to Obama for comment on the grouper, but let’s be honest, he’s got bigger fish to fry.
Friday is the last day for in-person early voting in Georgia before the runoff election for the highly coveted Senate seat on Tuesday. Lines to early vote have been long over the last week, especially in metro Atlanta, where some polling locations saw wait times of well over an hour. As of Friday morning, nearly 1.5 million Georgians have already cast their ballots ahead of Election Day on December 6.