Sea No Evil

David Howard's Seafood Cafe

3758 Nicollet Ave.; 822-6171

Last week I received my only response letter to date from an exasperated reader who asked if I had ever eaten at a restaurant that I didn't love. Beleaguered readers: Of course I have; I just don't write about them, for where's the fun in writing about (or for that matter eating at) a restaurant that sucks? And, it must be admitted that, as an unabashedly amateur restaurant critic, I am not one to turn over every curly endive and peek at its underbelly (though perhaps if I did, I'd find that long lost subscription to Gourmet magazine and those M.F.K. Fisher books that my editors are always recommending). And so, to hunker down for a few moments of soul searching, I went to David Howard's Seafood Cafe. Pardon me my bubbly gush, but I pretty much loved it.

David Howard's, an unaffected fish fry created and owned by former Minnesota Vikings linebacker David Howard, is just the place to right vexed spirits. The food, the decor, and the restaurant's underlying philosophy are unfailingly simple. As Howard told the Star Tribune's Mike Kaszuba back in '89, "I know that fish is the food of the '80s and the '90s and the 22nd century. I know red meat is so bad for you." Good, bad; simple dichotomies are so reassuring.

The clientele bears witness that this is food that most everyone can love and afford to treat themselves to now and again, ranging from neighborhood kids who came in counting out change for a homemade piece of peach cobbler and a Coke, to groups of expensively suited business ladies who seemed to order and eat everything on the menu. The cafe is divided into two sections, one a take-out counter and waiting area, clean as a whistle if somewhat less than luxurious, and the other a dining room with a fleet of white-clothed tables set with sheaths of white paper (believe me, that paper goes to good use; meals here can be quite messy and greasy). My friend discouraged me from sitting at a table where one could make use of the television set that dangles from the ceiling. I gave in, despite the part of me that really did want to watch Sally Jesse Raphael sort out "I'm sorry I ruined your life" with her sobbing guests.

Though not exactly a work of poetry, the menu is varied enough. Fish and a bit of chicken comprise the bulk of it together with various sides of greens, beans, and other odds and ends. If I hadn't been so hungry, I would have ordered a sandwich, which comes with cole slaw or fries, and my only concern then would have been whether to make it catfish, whiting, perch, rainbow trout, walleye, red snapper, or orange roughy ($4.99-6.99). But fresh grilled salmon doesn't come down the pike every day in these parts, especially not for $10.99. Nor do spiced crab claws ($10.99), fried okra, or shrimp cocktail. We spared ourselves no pleasure.

The 1976 edition of The Joy of Cooking defined eternity as "a ham and two people." Maybe then an instant is a plate of shrimp cocktail and two people, each modestly trying to count and clock the rate at which the other partner is devouring the bounty; fair is fair after all. But here the portions are bountiful enough to deem watchful eyes unnecessary; for $6.99 we had all the peel-and-eat shrimp we could want, borne with chilled lemon wedges and a serviceable cocktail sauce. We also whetted our appetites with a specialty of the day, a starchy Louisiana gumbo ($3.50) which wasn't so exciting (lack of spice was what killed it), though we did appreciate that it was served bubbling hot.

Best of the evening was the platter of sauteed crab claws, a special of the day, 15 of the grippers in all, sauteed in butter, fresh garlic, and lemon pepper ($12). There was no danger of the juicy and plentiful crab meat inside the claws desiccating, but just in case, they came with a huge bowl of drawn butter, spiced with more lemon pepper and a dish of tartar sauce. Excessive, perhaps, but the joy of turning the tender crab meat translucent with butter and then popping the whole of it into our mouths proved excess could be its own reward as much as any virtue. Delicious as well was the grilled salmon dinner ($10.99), the meat being moist, flaky, and treated liberally with lemon pepper.

Dinners here are served with hush puppies and two sides of your choice from among the fried okra, macaroni and cheese, cole slaw, potato salad, cabbage, red beans and rice, fries, and collard greens. With so many options, there were bound to be some disappointments. The hush puppies, for instance, were choke-dry balls of corn meal, and the red beans and rice were simply bland. But the fried okra was right on the money, served piping hot, crisp on the outside, juicy on the inside, and the collard greens were pungent and tasty beyond belief.

Beer, water, or soda are the best bets to accompany your meal. Wine, even Cook's Brut champagne, is on the menu, but I'll take a cheap beer over cheap wine any day, and a couple of bottles of Leinenkugel Red did us fine ($2.75 a piece). If you left room for it, the dessert offerings include a glorious sweet potato pie ($2.25) and a thick chocolate cake topped with gobs of icing and chocolate chips ($3).

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