Big Pussy sleeps with the fishes: At Sea Grill, the "ambiance adornments" are packed in ice.
Big Pussy sleeps with the fishes: At Sea Grill, the "ambiance adornments" are packed in ice.
Stephen P. Karlisch

Let's Talk Fish

It looks like a stage-prop fish market instead of something designed to dress up a restaurant. One whole corner of the bar at Sea Grill is a sloping bin filled with crushed ice. Imbedded in the ice is an assortment of sea life. Paving one slope is a batch of baby octopuses, resembling great gobs of stretched yellow mucus in their uncooked form. Clams and oysters pock the little ice floes like soot balls fired from a 1974 Pinto tailpipe. There are also a couple of tiger prawns. "We're getting in a 1-pound prawn next week," a server boasted, which means the prawn is either the result of brilliant aquaculture or a toxic-waste spill.

When you get this close, large fish smell not so much like a fish market as a bait shop. It's not a smell that would spoil your appetite, though it might make you want to check the co-pay on your health insurance policy. And there are a lot of fish here. A pair of red snappers is posted in the rear of the ice pack, one brilliantly pink, the other faded. There's a salmon, a pair of striped bass and little bunches of golden trout scattered about for color interest. (Most of the fish are identified with little tags imbedded in the ice.)

But the most interesting specimens on Sea Grill's ice didn't have a tag. They were the most colorful students in this hackneyed school, deep reds framed with pale gold threads. They had sloping foreheads with snouts containing rows of jagged teeth, which made them resemble a strange genetic collision between Flipper, a parrot and Toto. Those teeth, in conjunction with their half-open mouths and the droll expression on their heads (I hesitate to say faces) made them look as though they were about to speak, like "Big Pussy" Bompensiero did in the concluding episode of HBO's mob drama The Sopranos last season. In a dream sequence, mobster-turned-informant Big Pussy was transmogrified into a 10-pound, 2 1/2-foot talking tilefish (which also has teeth) planted in ice on a fish market pushcart on the boardwalk at Asbury Park Beach.

This Sea Grill fish looked like it could easily start conversation without looking a bit out of place, but I had a hard time finding out exactly to what species these fish belonged. Sea Grill's fish display is near the bar, and bartenders tend not to be well-versed in ichthyology. A manager said they were weasel fish and their imposing dental work was used to remove algae from rocks and such. The manager also said that none of the fish in this icy display were served to customers. (Thank God, although one wonders what they were used for once they failed to pass the smell test.) They were just used as ambiance adornments, maybe to induce patrons to drink like fish before they eat one.

Sea Grill does have a laudable menu, and the food is surprisingly good for the most part, even if the bartenders don't know a weasel fish from a swizzle stick. It's even reasonably priced--sort of. The surf and turf, a mix-and-match puzzle with various crustacean choices set off against beef, chicken or Cornish hens, was a little hefty at 40 bucks. With just three petite crab legs matched with a 6-ounce fillet, I found myself wondering if I'd be sated. Legs can be ordered three ways: roasted in a wood oven, steamed or boiled. The roasted legs were surprisingly good with delicately rich, broad flavors and not a hint of parched flesh--a seeming ever-present danger with roasting. The fillet was cooked to a near-perfect medium-rare hue, and the flavor was fine. Still, the flesh was slightly tough and a little stringy. The pair came with a mashed potato creation planted in a puddle of brown gravy that tasted like the stuff ladled on spuds at a hotel rubber-chicken banquet. Vegetables consisted of crisp, tasty asparagus stalks laced with slivers of red bell pepper.

Maybe this perceptible slippage stemmed from the hazards of merging divergent habitats, because when things stayed true to form, the food profited. Grilled chicken breast in creamed corn raspberry lemon sauce flecked with scallions was moist and tender, and the sauce brilliantly amplified the ghostly chicken flavors without transforming them into something uproariously foreign.

Typical seafood nibbles were good as well. The shellfish combo, a plated patchwork of oysters, clams, shrimp and crab claws, arrived with raspberries and blueberries scattered with seeming strategic focus. The oysters had blueberries imbedded into their tongues, like culinary pearl parody. In the center of the combo plate was a cupped radicchio leaf that held a delicious seaweed salad. The shellfish were smooth and cleanly briny, while the tiny crab claws were delicately tender and moist instead of stringy and mealy, as they tend to be more often than not. Shrimp were plump, succulent and rich with sweet sea flavors.

Sea Grill also has hot appetizers. Shrimp and sea scallop pot stickers, six pinched wonton purses, are perched in a puddle of soy among a tangle of shredded carrot and jicama. The stickers were moist--even slightly mushy--with a tiny surge of heat, but didn't sport much more than that beyond a salty soy sting. There was a hint of sweetness emanating from the flesh, but not enough to transcend the timidity of its bindings.

Sea Grill is an established seafood restaurant that recently moved from its old Plano environs on Central Expressway to new digs on the Dallas North Tollway near Trinity Mills. It occupies the space that was formerly Ricardo's Ristorante Mexicano, and it's a reasonably comfortable space with lots of sea-type trinkets on the walls such as ships and pictures of salmon. The environs are cast with lots of hard surfaces such as unclothed tables, wooden floors and upscale tract-home cabinetry that make for a fairly noisy dining environment if you happen to suckle your oysters during a rush.

Or spoon your risotto. Wild mushroom risotto, more separate and coarse than creamy and smooth, was infested with wild mushrooms, scraps of lobster flesh and a trio of tempura shrimp. Tempura shrimp were deeply rich, swelling with succulence sheathed in a sly crispness that added an ingenious textural contrast. The lobster added a contrast, too, though not a welcome one. While the flavor was near compelling, the flesh was like silicone rubber and so tough it was hard to cut with a knife.

The broiled Lake Victoria perch needed no knife though. In fact, it was so delicate it barely needed a fork, though a straw would have been too gauche. The fish formed an isle in the center of the plate. Around it and above it were sweet corn and crab meat in a plum wine-lemon butter sauce. The sweetness straddled the line between sufficient and overwhelming. I longed for a touch of pungent flavor to foil it, as the fish flesh was too mild to assume the burden. It wasn't until the center of the isle was reached that more savory flavors balanced this cloying sweetness.

Balance was struck in the grilled jumbo Gulf shrimp with pad Thai noodles slathered in a paprika-Thai chili sauce. Like every example at Sea Grill, this dish contained meaty, firm and rich shrimp with moist flavor. Plus, the well-sauced pad Thai noodles were supple and not sticky.

Desserts were good, too. The trio of sorbets--strawberry, lime and mango--were lush with clean fruit flavors. The warmed orange cheesecake took a much different stance, proffering a deliciously delicate cheese custard mated to an aggressively coarse graham-cracker crust, satisfying all of the palate senses.

Sea Grill's service was gracious but a bit uneven and rickety. We were waited on immediately after arriving on a congested Friday night, but there were long pauses between menu delivery, water dispersion and drink orders. But the servers are well-briefed on the menu, and they consistently offer worthy recommendations.

Now if only they could get those weasel fish to talk like mob button men.


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