McCormick & Schmick's used to be a toy store: FAO Schwarz, that ages-old chain purveyor of toddler titillation. FAO was bled into anemia by Wal-Mart and Toys "R" Us and is now suffering just as the season of shopping psychosis intrudes.
This is the sort of pressure that popped FAO from its NorthPark Center location some two years ago. Now this same spot serves to titillate adults, toying the senses not with Barbie boas and Tickle Me Elmos but with seafood from every corner of the globe. The food is served in a space dressed in steak-house trim with a touch of metrosexual. Acres of wood paneling are steered from testosterone-drenched beefiness to lighter tints and tones. Multicolored pieces of stained glass are fitted into curvy lighting fixtures.
M&S adds romance with crowds of colorful fish art and plush curtained booths. Sometimes entrées secretly mimic elements of the décor, as the ruby red trout does. The fillet, with silvery skin barely clinging to its underside, resembles a pleated drapery, not unlike the curtains guarding our booth portal. The thick meaty section near the top of the fillet rests on mashed potatoes. As the fillet slopes down toward the plate, it gets thinner, rippling into crimson pleats. The fish is dressed in a crisp tomato buerre blanc pebbled with tiny red and gold tomato cubes. This sauce acts like a relish, slipping a little briskness between the ghostly nut flavors tucked between the tender flakes of fish.
But these delicate flavors require perky taste buds. Come to think of it, countless entrées on menus in the city require vivacious buds to fully appreciate the meat of their existence. So why are so many menus infested with drowsy appetizers? In Japanese restaurants, "appetizers" are brisk implements designed to stoke the senses from their daily torpor, a daze induced by fast food, breath mints and Red Bull. Miso soup, seaweed salad and edamame serve this purpose: light and agile cues that spritz a little cold water on weary mouth parts.
So many of the appetizers thriving nowadays don't serve this purpose. Instead, most appetizers are self-contained if abbreviated ecosystems earnestly striving to satisfy every culinary yearning, setting up a dining experience replete with redundancy.
M&S servers extolled the flash-fried calamari, and it is not without its virtues. The thick brittle coating is greaseless and seasoned beyond the blandness of typical calamari. Here, the body rings are tender but firm and a little chewy--good structure. It comes with a trio of dipping sauces to catapult the dish to the loftier level of entrée apprentice: orange marmalade with horseradish and cilantro; sherry mayonnaise; and a cocktail sauce.
That's why the best thing to do at M&S is have oysters shucked. Oysters are the perfect foreplay because they lack the heft and intense flavors of overkill. Yet they force you to attention. Hell, what other meat so elegantly negotiates the razor's edge between the alluring and the revolting?
M&S has oysters by the acre: Fanny Bay, Sunset Beach, Hog Island, Nootka, Stellar Bay, etc., and they can be had in lots of six or 12 (one or two each of the first six on the roster). They're lushly clean with smooth briny flavors. They're settled on a bed of petite ice cubes, and a ramekin of cocktail sauce with a white smudge of horseradish accompanies them. These oysters shimmy across the tongue, sponge the roof, coax the throat and stir anticipatory angst like popcorn shrimp or Bay shrimp quesadillas never could.
But it's what these shellfish presage that's the important thing. And they're honored. On the wall, just below the ceiling is a collection of ink drawings depicting various oyster shells arranged in a kind of hall-of-fame strip.
Successful appetizing primes you for the good, the bad and the awful to come. Seafood corn chowder--creamy with firm scraps of bottom feeder and smoky, firm kernels--was rich and soothing. Spinach salad was a brutal little tiff: searingly tart strawberry slices throwing knuckle sandwiches at the Szechwan peanut dressing that clung thickly to the leaves like strokes from an over-lacquered brush. Dressing had salt in its arsenal, too, which helped hold its ground against the berries.
But those shellfish left me too sensitized for the grilled sea bass lightly packed in olive tapenade. Two slices of vine-ripened tomato were there as well, to boost the spark in case the tapenade couldn't do all of the heavy lifting. But there was nothing to lift. The fish was mushy, void of those clean, sweet flakes that collapse in perfect succulent sections under the slightest fork pressure. And this motley fillet was bedded down on a mattress of risotto; a bland watery fluff that was undercooked, lacking the satiny creaminess the best risottos exude.
Arctic char seemed to borrow sea bass flaws even as it pilfered the best elements from the trout. The criminal element won out, thankfully. The pink firm meat is swaddled in spinach leaves, bandaged in pastry (en croute) and cooked in a square that is angle-cut from corner to corner, leaving the diner with two pieces of fish pie. The pie slices are then dribbled in champagne butter sauce dotted with black caviar, creating a rich but delicate lotion with pinpricks of briny potency. The meat flaunted a moist, subdued richness. But that wrap was distracting, a bit doughy--a texture that gradually came to resemble bog mush as the pastry absorbed more sauce.
Tilapia matched the trout: tender and lush. But it had surprises supplied by a racy sweet nuttiness on account of Jamaica rum butter sauce washing over the fillet.
Launched more than 30 years ago by Bill McCormick and Doug Schmick, McCormick & Schmick's is a chain with links in more than a dozen states located in office towers, high-end retail, tourist traps and condominium complexes. One restaurant in Portland, Oregon, has a giant crab named Jake draped over a corner of the building, legs dangling down some two stories.
And like an efficient chain, M&S has its wine list printed on the back of the menu--a fairly decent list with 18 wines by the glass. It's a little heavy on some of the most fish-unfriendly wines: chardonnay (chardonnay pairs miserably with all but the richest seafoods like lobster and crab and fishes like salmon), merlot and cabernet. The selection blankets the globe, pulling bottles from Washington, Oregon, Spain, New Zealand, Italy, even Alsace and Germany, among others.
Despite a few flaws, M&S is a strong dining experience: one sturdy enough to withstand a potential squeeze by a virile Red Lobster or Long John Silver's.
307 NorthPark Center, 214-891-0100. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $$-$$$
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