Going back to the well

Did Newport's fish its menu from a deep hole?

But the most striking dish on this whole visit was the sake-steamed mussels over angel-hair pasta (actually, the pasta tangle was linguini). When it hit our table, it struck with a slight gust of sour fume, which I dismissed as an aromatic twist between the mollusks and the sake. What's interesting is that this dish arrived just as our conversation was getting sour and morose.

Our chat was about an article I had read about time, about how this time, the one you and I live in, is awfully good. Embarrassingly so, the easiest ride in human history. It's strange to think that not so long ago people struggled and sweat pulling food from the ground and suffered incomprehensibly from the most mundane knocks and pings of daily life. In the 1920s, President Calvin Coolidge's 16-year-old son got a blister on his foot after a round of tennis on the White House lawn. He was playing the game without socks, as I remember, and the blister became infected. Antibiotics didn't come onto the scene widely until around World War II. Coolidge's son died of blood poisoning.

Think of common historical events that for us in the here and now seem impossible to comprehend: collapsing economic sectors, wars that steal whole generations, dying from a blister. With that in mind, the author of the piece says our cushy, plush, yet harried ride is about to come to an abrupt end. Dues will be paid. There's going to be a big, terrible thing. She feels the tremors in the Zeitgeist, especially in Hollywood, where movies about asteroid-earth collisions, urban volcanoes, and aliens blowing up the White House have hit regularly throughout the '90s. Too many in this hive of global humanity think America is the great Satan. Too many dark genies have been released from whatever box Pandora once had locked-up: nuclear material, nasty germs, noxious chemicals. We'll be like Coolidge's son on the White House lawn, caught in a carefree bout of tennis when he suddenly gets a blister that sends him to the embalmer.

Now, I don't know what all this has to do with seafood, but I don't think it's a coincidence that my companion and I were in the depths of this gloom when that pasta arrived. The first bite stopped me in mid-sentence. My thought train was violently derailed. A single mussel, a shellfish that was turning, caused the drama. "You look a little peaked," my companion said. I stuck my fork into the dish and stirred the mix of mussels, pasta, cooked tomato mush, and soft segments of asparagus stalk. That sour gust turned into a windstorm of hurtful stink. My companion scrunched his face. "Good God. What is that?" he sneered.

And that was it. We stopped everything. Ceased the conversation. Brought the chewing to an end and pushed our dishes off to the side. Still steaming. Still stinking.

And you know what? Our server stopped by and asked us whether we were finished, and he took our plates virtually unchanged from when they first arrived and said not a word. He acted as though taking away full plates, with barely an element missing or upturned, was typical, was not outside the norm. Maybe here it isn't. Yet it's still odd if the place isn't planning to go the way of Graino.

Founded in 1984 by Jack Baum, Newport's Seafood was the first upscale restaurant in the West End. Then, in 1989, Baum purchased Sam's Cafe and took his eye off this seafood ball. As the press release states, "the restaurant subsisted for a few years primarily as a tourist and convention destination." In 1996, Baum offered to sell the "floundering restaurant" to Steve Laham, who was previously the restaurant's general manager. Laham sought to turn the thing around, and there is evidence of an effort. The wine list, for example, is skillfully crafted, with the white section far heavier in wines like sauvignon blanc, pinot gris, gewYrztraminer and Riesling than Chardonnay--as it should be for a seafood restaurant. The red list has more softer varietals and styles than bolder ones--again, appropriate.

But the food suffers miserably. I kept asking myself, Don't the people on the line ever taste the food to be sure it's being prepared properly? Don't they at least look at it? (The skim on the clam chowder was painfully obvious upon delivery.) Can't they smell the stuff they're sending out into the dining room?

Something is not right here. Newport's needs to go back to the well.

Newport's Seafood. 703 McKinney Ave., (214) 954-0220. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, open daily for dinner

5 p.m.-10:30 p.m.

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