People think in categories when it comes to restaurants. The typical dinner out begins with a conversation: "I don't feel like cooking. Want to go out? Want to eat Mexican? Italian? Pizza? You feel like Thai? Vietnamese? Wanna just get a Tombstone and a video? Steak? Seafood?"
For most of these questions, there is an answer in Dallas. But seafood has always remained a question mark. We don't have a natural seafood cuisine--our closest fish affiliation is 600 miles away at the Gulf, and the seasoning is generally Louisiana's.
So that fishy option is a pretty narrow niche, and in this locale, it's wide open.
Yet lots of people want to eat fish. It's leaner than meat, it's less--oh, carnivorous-seeming. It's perceived as healthier, low-fat--and therefore more virtuous, somehow--than red meat.
But fish is tricky. Because of where we are, we don't know much about it--cows are so much more familiar. There just aren't very many seafood restaurants in Dallas.
In the olden days, children, when I was young, if you wanted to eat fish in Dallas, you went to someplace like Zuider Zee, the place with the big windmill out front, and you ordered a platter of everything fried in the same batter with red sauce, or perhaps a fillet of something anonymous broiled with paprika and fake butter.
We have different expectations now. So it's good news that a variation of the team that rejuvenated Tex-Mex food has decided to give fish a chance. (Not surprisingly, Mainstream is just a few doors down the strip center from the original location of Mi Cocina. Not surprisingly, it's geared to the same family market.) But the fourth and crucial partner was the founder of T.J.'s Seafood, a retail fish emporium also just down the block. Obviously, this group hopes to become a baby Brinker--I'm sure they imagine Mainstreams all over the city, wherever there's a Mi Cocina. (The logo reads optimistically, "established in 1995.")
Even in Big Fish City, also known as the Big Apple, fish is tricky business. An article in New York magazine recently asked New York fish dealers--who have an obvious advantage--about the state of fresh fish. Dealers are the ones who know how crushed ice can cloud the eye of the freshest fish, how scallops are "dipped" to enhance their weight or cut with cookie cutters from a fillet of shark, how to tell a really tired flipper from one that was caught within memory, what's raised on the farm, what's still harvested from the wild.
As that article pointed out, rather romantically, fish are the last great wild food source--the last connection between most of us and the hunter-gatherers.
Kelly Haden, one of the owners of Mainstream, comes down on the side of pragmatism. He's earned his opinions--he and his father founded T.J.'s, and he worked a stint at Landlock Seafood, a Dallas wholesaler. Haden prefers to sell farm-raised fish, and he says 80 percent of Mainstream's menu is based on farmed fish because "it's consistent in terms of quality, availability, and price. Given the near-total lack of regulation in wild fish harvesting, it's safe to say that farmed fish is safer, too."
"Fresh" fish, of course, is a dubious term; many chefs believe that the "freshest" fish--unless you live on a boat--is flash-frozen on the boat that caught it.
That's rare, though. And, as Haden says, it's not just a question of what's fresh and what's not fresh. The so-called "Gulf" snapper listed on menus frequently isn't.
Mainstream, like Mi Cocina, is trying to appeal to that mythical Nineties vision of the American family: picture Ward Cleaver as a jogger, June into aromatherapy, Wally and the Beaver with their baseball caps turned backwards. This leaves out the discussion of whose night it is to have the kids, and whether this is the nanny's night out. This is Mainstream's customer. Bluehairs to babies, every age was represented when we were there, and that was nice. The family that eats together stays together, but they eat out now because Mom works at a law firm, and of course, Dad doesn't cook--American men are only semi-enlightened.
Mainstream is a low-key, approachable place, somehow trying to find a balance between the naturally high price of seafood and the low prices demanded by the target market. It's a tough trick, but Mainstream pulls it off pretty well, mostly by avoiding unnecessary frills, both decorative and gustatory. The place itself is extremely plain--that finish-out allowance must have been pretty minimal. Painted concrete floors, natural wood wainscoting, some painted green trim. That's about the entire impression.
The acrylic, fish-shaped table tents were nice. "Neat"--like "neat as a pin"--is the most enthusiastic descriptive phrase that comes to mind. There wasn't a stuffed marlin or sailfish in sight. Well, you imagine they're passing along the savings to the customer, right? And anyway, there's something about seafood that causes consumers to require every reassurance of clean and neat, which Mainstream is.
The menu is simple, too. It wisely lists only a limited selection of fish and shellfish, all of them familiar, pronounceable, recognizable food fish. Chargrilled salmon, tuna, and swordfish. Sauteed trout. A seafood pasta. Shrimp and Gulf oysters. It's all refreshingly basic. Expect some changes. The chef has some big ideas--there are plans for a raw bar at the front of the restaurant, for instance--but wisely opted to start simple.
We started with a "Cabo" seafood cocktail--shrimp, crab, scallop, or combo--with red cocktail sauce and a dab of avocado. "Kelly's Gulf Crabcakes" were the old-fashioned, not the upscale, variety, with plenty of seasoning and "stretcher" to bind the meat into tasty little patties. Peel-and-eat shrimp had a nice sweet flavor, but were disappointingly dry. New Orleans or New England "Bread Pot Shrimp," a trademarked dish (which always makes me suspicious), was a round little loaf of crusty bread, hollowed out and filled with a kind of spicy shrimp stewed in a red-black sauce that burned pleasantly.
The long pale fillets of trout were moist, boned, mild. Given my choice of sauces, I picked cilantro butter, which came in a little ramekin on the side and didn't taste much like cilantro. I had a choice of vegetable, too, but most of them seemed to be potato. The baked potato was steamed like all restaurant baked potatoes; I ended up snitching the excellent French fries from someone else's plate.
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This is just the kind of place for an oyster po-boy, a working-class sandwich that depends only on fresh-fried oysters and the loaf. Mainstream serves Gulf oysters, which we're all beginning to feel a little defensive about. So many places are persnickety and only serve cold-water oysters--Gulf ones require special labeling now. But for an oyster po-boy, our own Gulf sliders seemed just fine.
Desserts were three-bite delights: a golden filo cup of fresh berries; a Key lime tart--yellow and faintly bitter; a diminutive strawberry shortcake. Each was just the touch of sweetness that ends a meal nicely, not the heavy sugar artillery so often served to make a serving seem "worth it."
Mainstream Fish House, 1161 Preston Rd., 739-3474. Open Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Open Friday and Saturday 11 a.m.- 10 p.m.
Mainstream Fish House:
New Orleans Bread Pot shrimp $7.95
Oyster po-boy $4.95
Chargrilled salmon fillet $12.95
Idaho sauteed dressed trout $10.95