A fine mess

The first thing you notice about Rockfish is the tin washtub of peanuts near the entrance with a sign inviting diners to grab a tin bucket and fill up. The second thing you'll notice is that the floor crunches as you walk to your table--if there is one. Most likely during lunch and dinner hours, when it's packed, you'll have to take a seat at the bar, stand around the counter area, or loiter outside and toss your spent peanut shells in the grill of the new Lincoln parked in front.

Which is appropriate, because just as people need to let their hair down every once in a while, haughty cars need to get down to the level of a duct-taped Chevy Cavalier.

And this is the kind of casualness Rockfish facilitates. It's a clean platform conducive to the elegant slob in all of us--or inelegant slob if you have too many frozen margaritas, which is easy to do, as those peanuts generate an awful thirst.

The newest creation by See-Worthy Restaurants, the folks that gave us Shell's Oyster Bar and Grill, Rockfish is stuffed in a strip mall on Park Boulevard in Plano in the former ZuZu location. It's rustic in an L.L. Bean sort of way: rugged with a keen eye to fashion consciousness. An open kitchen and thick layers of lacquer distinguish Rockfish from its Shell's siblings. The sheen stretches across hardwood floors, wood tables, and step-up pine booths.

But Rockfish still incorporates some of the same quirky garb that bedecks Shell's, such as inverted tin bucket chandeliers and walls holding fish trophies and fishing pictures with goofy captions. The back bar is a roughened windowpane framing a recessed beach scene applied to the wall behind it, spicing your visit with that jarring Viewmaster perspective before you've even had your first margarita. Above the front counter hangs a canoe with a series of paddles fanning out from the boat's bottom. Each paddle is imprinted with the name of a Rockfish financial partner, a fitting tribute for a place that has a polished floor littered with discarded peanut shells.

The name Rockfish is derived from the seafood menu in tandem with river-rock walls that line the entrance, bar, and counter areas plus the 1940s-style ROCK-OLA jukebox by the bar. The menu is nearly identical to Shell's, but its execution is far smoother. Gumbo with chicken, shrimp, and sausage had a good smoky flavor with generous, moist chunks of chicken and firm, tender rice. But the roux could use a bit more savory richness and a firmer spice kick.

Peel-and-eat shrimp, served in a tin bucket of ice, were cooked to a perfect firmness, while the boil used in the preparation brought out all of the shrimp's natural sweetness without masking any of its flavor.

But freshly shucked oysters on the half shell were fairly mushy, with tired flavors and little clean brininess. Two from our dozen had some pretty severe off flavors, the kind that make you think there's a contract out on you.

The buffalo shrimp po' boy seemed a misappropriation of flavors to my buds. The sharply sour spiciness of the buffalo sauce trounced the sweet popcorn shrimp flavors, and the breading got pasty and gooey in the sauce after just a few minutes in the flavorless, chewy roll.

Rockfish's entrees feature fish, shellfish, daily pasta and fish selections, plus "things that don't swim"--a small selection of meat and chicken. The fish specials are quite good.

Though slightly spongy, the grilled sea bass with lemon-pepper butter was overall flaky and suffused with clean, mildly sweet flavors. A side of grilled zucchini, yellow squash, and broccoli was perfectly prepared. But a side of rice, though adequate, was dry and needed seasoning to stand up to the rest of the plate.

Rockfish's crab platter was stellar. Generous servings of snow crab were firm, succulent, and screaming with rich, sweet flavor. They've either tweaked the recipe, found a better supplier, or improved kitchen execution, because this stuff is markedly tastier than the crab served at Shell's. A side of spicy sausage provided a gripping, aggressive counterpoint to the more delicate crab. But corn on the cob didn't receive the same attention to detail as the rest of the platter and was inexcusably soggy, mushy, and mealy.

With a crispy exterior, the grilled salmon was a little on the dry side and slightly bland. The vegetables were perfect again--and the rice dry and roundly boring--proving that Rockfish is consistent if nothing else.

Fortunately, there is some substantive "else" to this place. The menu isn't killer, but it has points of luminosity that seduce. And with reasonable prices and an attitude that exterminates any pretentiousness that might soil its peanut-shell-cluttered interior, it's hard to quibble too loudly with its culinary shortcomings.  

And this is no doubt why this so-tagged incarnation will serve as the blueprint for further expansion for this restaurant group, which will include up to eight new units throughout the metroplex over the next few years. There is also the fact that a similar Florida-based restaurant company with deeper pockets, bigger lawyers, and the "Shell's" moniker has ambitions for national expansion. See-Worthy officials say the Colleyville Shell's will be remodeled and renamed to match the new Plano location, while the Snider Plaza location will become Halfshells Oyster Bar & Grill and the Lemmon Avenue Shell's will be renamed Mother Pearl's Seafood House and Oyster Bar.

Anyway you shuck it, Rockfish is as enjoyable as Shell's, only better.

It seems almost comical that a restaurant boasting authentic Caribbean fare would sprout up in a dry area of Dallas. Almost as funny as the emergence of lush, green golf courses and waterways filled with bickering pirates in ships in the middle of the Las Vegas desert. Of course, most people would agree that Las Vegas is a virtual warehouse club of value-priced comical irony.

While Vegas creates an atmosphere of fun that drives you to stuff your kid's lunch money into quarter slots, Caribbean Grill creates a festive atmosphere that makes you want to, well, eat Caribbean food. Plugged into the former Benavides Restaurant space on Forest Lane, Caribbean Grill pounds with reggae and calypso music (live music will be featured shortly after this writing) and is bright with aqua-washed walls, island murals, acid-yellow trim, purple woodwork, and booth seating. The tables in the center of the dining room are surrounded with thickly padded chairs in a coral hue with backs in the shape of clamshells.

And this tone carries over to the menu, a hodgepodge of dishes from Jamaica, Cuba, Antigua, and the Virgin Islands. Plus there are some island beers here (Red Stripe, Carib-Dragon), so bring your Unicard.

Caribbean Grill's conch fritters were crisp on the outside and light, but a little doughy, on the inside. A lively cilantro vinaigrette, a variation on a traditional recipe from St. Martin, supplied a good shot of spice and tang that counteracted the slight fritter doughiness.

With chunks of golden yam, glue-like dumplings, green bananas, and a broth rendered from a fish-head (eat 'em up, yum) stock, the fish tea was slightly spicy, with a rich fish taste, though there was little fish meat to be found. Jamaican beef patties, flaky yellow pastry turnovers filled with finely ground beef that's stewed down to a paste, were delicate, spicy, and rich at the same time.

Caribbean Grill's stuffed crab is a welcome twist on the ubiquitous crab cake. A pair of crab body hulls are stuffed with shredded crabmeat, bread crumbs, onion, pepper, and garlic, coated with more bread crumbs, and deep fried. The flavor is full and rich, even if the stuffing was slightly cakey.

A real surprise is the grouper fillet in a wine, cream, and garlic sauce. This generously thick portion of fish was moist and flaky, with a sauce that amply complemented the mild sweetness of the flesh. But the accompanying sauteed cabbage and yellow squash were a bit over-buttered, while a side of overcooked saffron rice offered little flavor.

Cuban black beans over rice with a side of roasted pork had perfectly prepared beans with a slightly smoky flavor over flawless white rice. And the slices of juicy pork were slathered in a sauce rendered from orange juice, oregano, garlic, vinegar, and olive oil that worked smoothly with the meat, bringing out its delicately rich nuances.

Parched, mealy, and falling off the bones, the jerk chicken was as big a disappointment to this menu as a cloudy day with a cold front is to the beach. A cup of dipping sauce had potent spiciness with a sweet undercurrent, but even this girding of hearty flavors didn't stand a chance of rescuing this inferior bird.

The rib eye marinated in jerk seasoning also had some serious problems. Infused with a sharp sourness and a bitter spike, the meat--marinated in a concoction of onions, peppers, thyme, ginger, vinegar, and caramelized sugar with jerk seasoning--was plagued by a preponderance of fat and a mushy, stringy consistency. It was cooked to a reasonable semblance of medium rare, but the boisterous marinade tang crushed what rich meat flavors this cut possessed while a cup of red beans and rice was dry and pasty.

Housemade Key lime pie, however, was a serious treat: a gripping tang over a fresh, crunchy piecrust.

Opened last November by Roland Frederick, a former mechanical engineer who hails from Antigua, Caribbean Grill has all the right stuff in place: decor, ambiance, interesting menu. With a little tighter focus on menu execution, this might end up in the top tier of island eateries in town.  

Rockfish, 4701 W. Park Blvd., Plano, (972) 599-2190. Open Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; open Friday & Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; open Sunday 11 a.m.-9 p.m. $$-$$$

Caribbean Grill, 3068 Forest Lane, Suite 111, (972) 241-9113. Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Open for dinner Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; Friday 5 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Open Saturday noon-10:30 p.m. Open Sunday for brunch 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m. $$

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Rockfish Seafood Grill

4701 W. Park Blvd.
Plano, TX 75093-2326



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