The Appearance of Value

McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurant
800 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis; (612) 338-3300
Hours: Monday-Friday 11:00 a.m.-1:00 a.m.; Saturday 4:00 p.m.-1:00 a.m.; Sunday 4:00 p.m.-midnight; kitchen closes at 11:00 nightly.

 

McCormick & Schmick's may have been open only a few months, but that doesn't mean it hasn't reached a certain sort of restauranty adolescence, replete with randy shenanigans. So, we asked the waitress one night, sitting in our snug--a sort of private, walled-in booth--do a lot of people draw those green velvet curtains closed? "Oh yeah, they close the curtains and sit in here for hours," she complained. "You can't get them out. I think a lot of them are trying to have sex."

Really? goggled my table. "Yeah, there was this couple, and they covered up these things," she said, gesturing to the beveled glass windows that framed the booth, "and someone came in and found the girl, uh, servicing her boyfriend. Or at least that's the rumor." The rumor? My table was desperate to know the truth, so our server went out in search of it: "Rumor confirmed!" she exclaimed on her return. (Thankfully, it wasn't our snug. Or so she said.)

But who could find this so erotic? I mean, the sound system is brimming with Saturday Night Live-style jazz, there's a lot of dark wood and brass, Minnesota-related art or memorabilia bolted to the walls, mounted fish and fowl, and stained-glass fish-and-ladyslipper ceilings. Is this anybody's version of satin and firelight?

"FantaSuites is missing a key market," observed a friend of mine: "Here's the ancient-Egypt theme suite, here's the Igloo Room, and over here the midlevel chain-restaurant suite. Indulge your love among the paper placemats and industrial china." It made no sense at all, until I considered that oysters are supposed to be one of the world's most powerful aphrodisiacs. And those oysters are the best thing available at this new downtown restaurant, the 28th outpost of Portland-based chain McCormick & Schmick's. There always seem to be eight to a dozen varieties of oyster available, flown in from all over the world by M&S's national network of suppliers. On my visits prices ranged from $8.25 to $12.20 for six oysters, or an assortment of a dozen for $19.90.

The very best I had were Blue Points from Long Island Sound: These enormous, barnacle-backed beauties were sweet and briny, like a sea-made fruit. Other oysters I tried--those from Pearl Bay, in British Columbia, those from Malpeque in Prince Edward Island--were excellent, though a couple with more delicate shells were rather mangled, the muscle torn and the meat full of shell pieces. The aphrodisiac-minded could craft an entire meal out of the noble oyster: Fried oysters have been available both as an appetizer ($6.95) or an entrée, with fries and coleslaw ($13.60). The fried oysters, both times Japanese Pacific yearlings, were plump and meaty, a little flabby but still very good.

Still hungry for the bivalve that lifted Aphrodite from the sea and encouraged her to give birth to Eros? My advice is to count your blessings, and repair to your own home--your own homes, people. No, you insist on ordering a bowl of oyster stew ($5.90)? Well, now you've done it, you've gone and requested a big bowl of butterfat-greasy white liquid that tastes like fishy milk with some oysters and parsley. If this sends you fleeing to the menu of nonraw, nonfried entrées, I'm betting your night is over, as your fight-or-flight instincts will quickly override your reproductive ones: A fillet of tombo (the Hawaiian name for albacore tuna, $16.40) was so overcooked it flaked like chipboard, and the buttery pink-peppercorn-and-grapefruit-section sauce that accompanied it so unbalanced, so sweet, and so bitter it made my eyes cross. The asparagus that came with the tombo was fine, but the other accompaniment was like somebody's leftover takeout; a molded dome of rice that had sat out, presumably under heat lamps, for so long it had developed a rubbery crust. Take the time to pierce that crust and you find absolutely plain boiled rice. Why? To create an appearance of value, I'm guessing, because that dome of rice accompanied lots of dishes: It came beside a perfectly tender piece of Red Lake lake trout ($14.55) which was covered with morels so shriveled they were the size of raisins. Perplexingly, they didn't taste at all like morels, but rather overpoweringly sour.

Parmesan-crusted, pan-seared fillets of yellowtail flounder ($15.70) tasted of burnt cheese, and the lemon-caper-butter sauce that topped them had the same weird buttery, acrid notes that I hated in the grapefruit sauce. McCormick & Schmick's menu advises that most fish are available simply grilled with lemon butter, so I tried this once with Newport, Oregon, king salmon ($18.90). I received a tiny piece of overcooked fish. The best piece of fish I found, by a wide margin, was cedar-plank-roasted salmon ($19.95). It was tender and smoky, and if they had left off the clumsy pinot-noir-berry sauce, which tasted like boiled wine and pie filling, we would have had something to discuss.

There's no refuge in desserts. A berry cobbler ($5.95) was completely liquid: hot jam soup. Chocolate cake ($6.25) was so lacking in chocolate flavor it reminded me of a box-mix cake. Other desserts were just as bad. It's enough to drive a girl to drink.

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