The Cowfish, which opened in CAPTRUST Tower at North Hills in April, welcomes diners with an engaging and playful décor anchored by a cocktail-shaped aquarium. Its oversized anime Powerpuff Girls and riff on pop art icon Roy Lichtenstein (cold-hearted Burger King dismisses a tearful Wendy) are entertaining. The fashionable wolf in Sir Walter's clothing is a crafty nod to N.C. State.
Perhaps the most telling image about the food is that of sumo Elvis, who not only looks down on customers eating huge portions but also gives them a second glance, in bust form, at the restroom doors. After two warnings, it's hard to push from one's mind the final vision of him collapsed in his bathroom from a life of excess.
Thanks to a self-described "quirky" menu and loyal "Cowfish Junkies" mooing their praise in a well-orchestrated social media blitz, the restaurant has been busy since day one. The notion of melding sushi, burgers and hybrid "burgushi" was a brainstorm that saved a co-owner's failing burger joint by combining it with a traditional sushi restaurant. As proudly noted on its website, Cowfish was lauded by Charlotte Magazine as "Best New Concept" in 2011.
The site also quotes Garden & Gun, which seems to damn it with faint humor: "Over on the gonzo end of the spectrum, the Cowfish, a crazily popular new restaurant concept that will sweep the country if God doesn't strike down the owners for crimes against both burgers and sushi, serves a pimento cheese burger topped with blue corn tortilla strips and fried pepperoncinis."
The I-dare-you appeal of such fare may be fun, but the focus on whacked-out calorie bombs makes Cowfish feel like a sort of Gen X Denny's. If your measure of a quality restaurant is limited to a noisy atmosphere and massive servings, stop reading and head straight over for lunch or dinner.
Our multi-course meal for three started with two appetizers ($4–$14). The titillatingly named Crispy Calamari "T&T" (tubes and tentacles) needed its base of housemade sweet chili sauce as it was otherwise flavorless. Our server suggested the popular Crab Rangoon Dip, an irresistible showstopper. It offers a mountain of wonton crisps drizzled with the same sauce, accompanied by a gratin dish filled with gooey dip. The deconstructed presentation is clever and well-suited for a crowd, but the rich cheese and fried wrappers left an aftertaste of regret.
We chose main courses from the key menu sections. Most of the 19 half-pound burger variations ($10–$16) start with "all natural black angus beef"; others feature lamb, turkey, bison or vegetables. In another tribute to the King, a double burger comes "loaded with creamy peanut butter, fried bananas" and bacon. No thank you very much.
I had the Mediterranean, a seemingly safe choice that included a dollop of tzatziki sauce and feta. The slab of feta was battered and fried, but luckily its skin peeled off. The family-size order of sweet potato fries arrived deliciously crisp but soon went limp from steaming in its sheer volume.
There is a carnival array of sushi options ($12–$29), which presumably are assembled on demand at the sushi bar. It was hard to tell with the Tropical Storm Roll, a typical California roll stacked with layers of tuna, salmon and yellow tail then sprinkled with a rainbow selection of roe. The dish was pretty, but the fish had a texture that suggested it had been sliced and chilled in advance.
We also tried the Smokin' Salmon Sandwich, a "burgushi" said to fuse sushi and burger traditions. Slices of lox and cream cheese were spread inside a "bun" made from grilled spring roll wrappers filled with crab and sushi rice. The odd bun texture made us wish it had been served on a proper bagel.
If you are not sufficiently sated by this point, Cowfish offers six ginormous desserts, all priced at $7. The recommended Fresh Berry Tall Cake was the best thing we ate all night, but it was just a twist on shortcakes that will be enjoyed at July 4th cookouts.
As we wobbled out, I couldn't resist grabbing from the hostess table a plastic-wrapped fortune cookie, which tasted stale. This should have been the message: More is less.
This article appeared in print with the headline "More is less."