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Hope sinks

There's one thing you can say about Big Fish Little Fish, the new seafood boathouse on Henderson: It's got a great hook. It's cluttered with lots of kitschy seaside props such as a patio fashioned like a boat dock with a thick rope railing, a deck made with wide planks, and an old Conoco boat gas pump planted near the tables. The interior is painted bright red and deep blue with netting on the ceiling and a window box near the front filled with sand scattered with an assortment of crustacean traps. Black iron fish chandeliers hang above the bar, and an authentic 1959 mahogany Chris-Craft Cavalier cruiser that seats seven is beached in the middle of the dining room.

Everything is fresh, clean, and buttoned-down. The service is a little rickety: something you can forgive if the menu embraces a broad selection of fresh, flavorful seafood. And, scrawled over a large chalkboard in the dining room, the menu sure gives that impression. Fish and seafood selections can be ordered grilled, blackened, or fried, in a choice of sauces including crawfish with tomatoes and mushrooms, caper-dill, lobster-brandy cream, etoufee, Alfredo, or marinara.

But while BFLF has the hook, it forgot to impale it with juicy bait. The food is underwhelming, and it sure doesn't come close to keeping the menu prices afloat--reasonable, perhaps, but only if the entrees were well thought-out and meticulously prepared.

For example, the house smoked salmon at $6.95 might seem a good value. The reality sank this assumption, however, with a skimpy sliver of fish that was mushy and limp instead of supple and flaky. Plus, the smoke flavor had no depth--as if the meat had been shaken in a zip-lock bag with liquid smoke, chilled, and then plopped on the plate. A side of housemade coarse tartar sauce was exceptional, however.

Similarly, the grilled lobster tail at $19.95 strikes as a reasonable price. But not when the result is a crustacean fanny, tasting more extruded than prepared in a kitchen. The thing was dry, had the texture of silicone, and possessed virtually no sweet succulence or rich flavor to speak of. The lifeless caper-dill sauce did nothing to retrieve it from mediocrity. Plus, a side of mashed potatoes did an uncanny wallpaper-paste impersonation, while a clump of browning, mushy corn made this $20 entree seem more like something dreamed up by a hair-netted lady from the school lunch program.

Linguini with mushy mussels in a deep puddle of soupy white wine sauce didn't have the strength to keep itself together. The mussels (old? overcooked?) fell right out of the shells, and the preponderance of runny sauce didn't do much except knock it out of kilter with a sharp sourness on the finish.

Stuffed baked trout with Chardonnay cream sauce featured delicate, flaky fish as a centerpiece. But there wasn't a whole lot of flavor, and the sauce and the stuffing with tiny shrimp and vegetables were too timid to lend any excitement.

There were some notable successes here, though. BFLF's calamari salad was fresh, crisp, and lively with tender yet resilient, agile calamari void of off-putting fishiness. Scattered on a bed of lettuce and red cabbage, the calamari shared space with capers, pimiento, and sliced green deli olives that sparked it with a bright, briny backdrop of flavors.

Equally satisfying was the Boston clam chowder: creamy, rich, and smooth. It was studded with big pieces of chewy, tender clams and chunks of potato at just the right consistency--a real bowl-licker. Mahi-mahi with Chardonnay cream sauce was moist and flaky, and the addition of crawfish, tomato, and mushroom to the mix added interest. But the whole thing still wallowed in tepidness. There was no compelling spark here, at least not enough to justify $14.95. In contrast to a previous visit, the mashed potatoes were smooth and creamy instead of pasty. But that awful corn made another comeback.

The only real bargain on the menu was the Key lime pie with pecan crust. At four and a half bucks, this rich beast with a creamy, tangy custard and a hearty, crisp pecan-crumb crust seemed to have made off with all of the flavor from that chalkboard. Dreamed up by former Natchez owner Dan Vincent and chef-restaurateur Kenny Bowers--ex-Daddy Jack's partner and onetime Lefty's Lobster and Chowder House owner--this boathouse eatery has an engaging, casual atmosphere that's primed for roaring success. But the attention to food is a little too casual, making the prices far too serious.

Nothing fills me with awe like a crisp example of profoundly imaginative resourcefulness--the kind where someone takes lemons and makes whiskey sours.

And that's exactly what you'll find at Rock & Roll Sushi, a relatively new Japanese restaurant tucked in Preston Center. Originally this sushi venue, featuring a circular sushi bar threaded with a moat, was going to serve guests by propelling boats holding little plates of sushi and sashimi creations around the bar. It was intended to be a self-service pluck similar to that in a few California sushi restaurants. But the idea made the Dallas Health Department nervous, and it was scrubbed.

So what do you do with a restaurant canal rendered impotent by bureaucrats? In keeping with the rock & roll theme, the chefs blow dry ice through that waterway, creating a ring of channel-hugging fog around the bar that slithers down and weaves around place settings.

Ingenious. It took me back to the late '70s and glam-rock concerts. These were events where primped and pouting musicians--whose shag-hair sheen and eyeliner applications rivaled that of any supermodel's--provided barely discernible musical backdrops for men in spandex, garish pyrotechnics, and light-show antics made tasteful by shrouds of dry-ice fog.

The whole Rock & Roll Sushi thing is made more authentic by a set of muscular black mini-speakers around the restaurant that belt out hits from the '70s and early '80s like Grand Funk Railroad's "We're an American Band" and Soft Cell's "Tainted Love." That circular bar is even a stage prop of sorts. Rough-hewn concrete pillars support a dome on which a sky mural with puffs of cloud has been painted.

The restaurant itself is clean and crisp and washed in soft pastels. But the sushi is a sharply drawn hit-and-miss collection, with the hits smacking the bull's-eye, and the misses sailing clear out of the county.

Yellowtail (hamachi) had the freshest, most tender and delicately satiny flesh you'll find anywhere. But the flying fish roe (tobiko), though appropriately bright orange and fluffy, had a faint odor of sour milk and a strong off flavor--definitely a candidate for a trip to the bottom of that sushi-bar channel.

Tuna (maguro) was deep red, firm, and silky, while the parchment-thin slices of octopus tentacle (tako) were tender and firm without the overtly rubberized textures that sometimes plague these cooked pieces of mollusk limb. The California roll was a ho-hum rice log.

Hamachi roll was a strange beast: seaweed-clad rice encasing a core of what appeared to be minced canned tuna bound by some sort of creamy substance. The flavor was OK, though the texture was a bit mushy. Spicy tuna roll, a dark core of tuna in soy and sesame, was flush with a good, nutty flavor. But the sheet of seaweed (nori) was tough and chewy instead of supple. Maybe they inadvertently rolled the seaweed label in this one.

If it wasn't borne of an earnest stretch for a cheap Texas tie-in, it's hard to imagine from which spawning pond came the name for one particular house roll. But the crazy cowboy roll, a spicy tuna core in soy and sesame sheathed in sheets of salmon interlaced with avocado over rice, was good anyway, with silky-smooth textures and good, nutty, balanced flavors.

Service around the bar was an intrusive annoyance. Our server's fists incessantly probed and prodded between and under diners' arms, snatching empty dishes and replenishing depleted glasses of tea (or in my case, bottles of sake). Still, I yearned for a pair of electrically charged chopsticks to fend off those invasive grabs. Plus, it was impossible to shut up the sushi chef, which may explain why I got a thing that tasted like a label in one of my rolls.

The non-sushi parts of the menu lumbered with the same degree of hit-and-miss consistency. Chicken teriyaki--slathered in a viscous, bland sauce that was slightly sour--tasted old and dry. A flower formed on the side of the plate with pickled broccoli florets and bright yellow corn kernels was visually appealing and a flavorful touch.

Katsudon, breaded and fried pork cutlet topped with egg, onion, and shredded carrot over rice, was anchored with hard, dry pork that had a texture resembling that of chopped twine. The rice, however, was supple and separate and soaked in a flavorful sauce.

Now don't let this Japanese culinary see-saw leave you with the impression that Rock & Roll sushi is a bud-deaf dud in the raw. After all, there's something to be said for chewing on a piece of near-quivering sea flesh on a rice mattress while The Knack's "My Sharona" rattles the fixtures and dry-ice fog gauzes your chop sticks.

At least I think there is.

Big Fish Little Fish. 2918 Henderson, (214) 821-4552. Open Monday-Thursday 5:30-10 p.m.; Friday & Saturday 5:30-10:30 p.m. $$-$$$$

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miles
Big Fish Seafood Grill & Bar

414 S. Main St.
Grapevine, TX 76051

817-481-2010

www.bigfishonmain.com


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