Sea no evil

Plano's Sea Grill angles for greatness

On my restaurant critics' top 10 list of most-often-asked questions--along with "What's your favorite place to eat?" (home) and "Why aren't you really fat?" (stress)--is, "What's a good place to go for seafood?"

Until now, I haven't had a really good answer.
Cafe Pacific is good, Newport's is fine, there are some great oyster shacks and several Cajun places that handle seafood well, but really, you can't make a top 10 list of good seafood restaurants in Dallas--even if you cheat and widen that to mean Metroplex.

There aren't very many places that serve much seafood at all, much less cook it well. That doesn't seem like an unreasonable situation in a land-locked city--but if we're going to eat fresh basil and strawberries all year 'round, why not a little fresh seafood?

So I'm happy to add Sea Grill to this particular list, and I put it near the top. The only problem is, you have to find it first, and...it's in Plano.

I'm frequently accused of Plano-phobia; one irate reader actually insists I can't distinguish Plano from Far North Dallas. It is true that I'm pretty close to being a downtowner. Though I'm not exactly afraid to go north, I just rarely see any need to. The further north I go, the closer I seem to get to Southern California, where everything is a copy of something else. The houses are an architectural collage--not only do they all look vaguely like someplace else, they also all look alike. And the restaurants are mostly clones of Dallas establishments.

So as you drive north, the landscape seems to repeat itself--recurring strips of brick strip-lined Belt Lines, Chili's and Sfuzzi's, over and over all the way to Oklahoma.

It's become a badge of real success for a Dallas restaurant to open a second branch in Addison, or Richardson, or Plano. Sea Grill, however, is an original. And whether you hail from downtown or out north, it's not easy to find.

So be aware from the beginning: the phone book's directions to Sea Grill in Plano are not confusing--they're wrong. It's not actually on the corner of Park and Highway 75 as advertised. And, if you're going north--unless you already know that to reach Park Boulevard going west, you have to go east, then south--you're sunk.

It's on the back side of a strip shopping center, one of those storefront restaurants with a great view of its own parking lot. We watched out the window as the third member of our dining party made a turn, drove past the restaurant, made a wrong turn, circled around, and headed out in the opposite direction. When we saw her making another pass, I went and stood on the corner, waving my arms so she wouldn't circle Central Expressway forever.

We returned to the table, sipped some wine, read the menu, and agreed that Sea Grill was a wonderful place. Heck, we hadn't even eaten anything yet. We just liked Sea Grill because we'd found it.

We found a lot more--and better--reasons to like it, though. Except for prime rib and a steak, the menu is seafood: fin fish, shellfish, and pasta sauced with seafood. We were betting our expert waiter, John, was from Louisiana, because of his understanding of seafood and his wonderful drawling way of talking ("That Chef Andy, he cooks real good, now, real good"). Henderson, maybe.

But it turns out John grew up in my neighborhood, lived all his life here, and has been working in Dallas restaurants--Old Warsaw, Dominique's, Nate's--for 40 years. He really knows his food; he even used his hands to draw a picture of the dish he was describing. "What he does is, he takes that turbot and then he puts in some of that whole grain mustard and a little--just a little--cream. I's re-e-al good."

"Chef Andy" is Andy Tun, a transplanted New Yorker with a great resume (including Wilkinson's on Manhattan's Upper East Side) and a definite way with fish, which he enhances with a world of accents, new American to Asian.

John was right. It was real good. I started with scallop hash, a mundane title for a stellar dish--scallops and potatoes, tender, sweet, just patted together in a little round cake that fell into succulent bits at the first poke of the fork, with tiny fresh thyme leaves dotted throughout, in a roasted tomato sauce. It was fabulous but not less so than the (off-the-menu) nest of mussels (Prince Edward Island, what John calls "blue mussels"), open like mouths with fat little tongues inside, sprinkled with lemon grass and holy basil. The broth left in the bottom of the bowl was too good to leave. We lapped it up like soup and sopped it with the crisp garlic bread balanced on top of the shells--and the special appetizer, a sextet of Malpeques oysters, wild and briny with a sauce of horseradish stirred with citrus juices. That combination doesn't sound unusual, but somehow it inspired us to soak it up with the spongy bread again.

Main courses were just as good: a special fillet of turbot, perfectly cooked to melting whiteness, with chopped tomatoes, a sauce touched with whole grain mustard, served with cauliflower and scalloped potatoes. The thick fish-shaped fillet of salmon was crusted with lemon pepper, seared and nestled in mushroom duxelles, its bright sauce thickened and sweetened with pureed carrot, livened up with lemon. Thin potato discs and sugar peas, broccoli and turned carrots completed the plate; we also ordered a pile of thread-like fried and salted sweet potato strings and a plate of grilled endive and radicchio, sweetened lightly with balsamic vinegar and yellow bell pepper.

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