Gone Fishin'

Red Fish Blue
1681 Grand Ave., St. Paul; (651) 699-6595
Hours: lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:00 p.m. Monday-Friday. Dinner 5:30 p.m.-10:00 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5:00 p.m.-11:00 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 5:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m. Sunday. The wine bar stays open an hour past dinner service every night, serving wine and beer only. Brunch will begin in late February, 10:30 a.m.-2:00 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.

"You're my prize eaters," our server assured my table one night, incredulous that we had plowed through two rounds of appetizers, followed by entrées and sides--and then, perhaps most incredibly, finished the desserts. I didn't have the heart to tell him that out of my series of meals at Red Fish Blue my overwhelming impression was of dishes, dishes everywhere, but hardly a drop to eat.

Now, Red Fish Blue is not just a hip new mid-price seafood restaurant on Grand Avenue, it's also the most hotly anticipated restaurant of the season, not only because it replaces the beloved St. Paul Table of Contents, which closed in the fall and left a hole in St. Paul dining when it went, or because the restaurant has been brought to us by the ToC chefs and owners, a smart bunch well-regarded by critics of every stripe, but also because the Twin Cities desperately need a good mid-price seafood restaurant.

So, how much of heartbreak is hope dashed? I've been puzzling on it ever since my last visit to Red Fish Blue, and I can confidently say I have no idea. Maybe I'd have felt less horrified by a restaurant of which I had expected nothing.

Unfortunately, I can also confidently say I've hardly seen such foul paella and bouillabaisse as the stuff served here. Both of these dishes cost $12.95 a person and require a minimum order of two portions. The bouillabaisse was a lukewarm serving of dry, flinty rice in a watery broth that tasted like nothing whatsoever. It was topped with overcooked, rubbery clams, mussels, and shrimp, and came with lots and lots of overcooked green peas (!) and cubes of long-boiled carrot and potato. It seemed like something meant to punish felons. In contrast, the rice in the paella was exactly the opposite: It was so gummy, runny, and sticky it looked like it had been poured out of a can. A very old can. It didn't taste any better, and was crowned by mussels and clams that were, again, terribly overcooked and chewy. Burned little nuggets of chorizo lurking in the rice tried to help the situation but could not.

Yes, burned. I was also served calamari ($7.50), burned to an unattractive mahogany and paired with a "horseradish aioli" that tasted like sour cream and horseradish. Hush puppies ($3) were burned at the same meal, and at another lunch the little crab cakes on a crab-cake salad were burned. At a third meal the basket of homemade breads ($5) were re-warmed so violently, they became hard and shriveled. I couldn't even break the Cheddar-and-chive biscuits with my bare hands.

During a string of visits, I tried about half of the 50-plus choices on the menu, and the only things I can recommend at all were the good desserts and one great special--a whole sea bass ($28.95) slathered with a purée of fresh ginger and sesame seeds and roasted. The fish itself was tender, the sauce bold without being overpowering. It was a complete surprise, and a thorough joy. Distantly after that, the best things I found were mediocre fish and chips ($9.95; the fries were fresh and salty) and boiled one-pound Maine lobsters with two side dishes ($19.95 for one lobster, $34 for two). Still, how much enthusiasm can you work up for a one-pound lobster? In Cape Cod, where I spent an adolescence in restaurant kitchens, fishermen didn't even harvest one-pounders, holding they were too small to eat.

Sadly, even mediocrities were few and far between. Twice I resented the "steaming tower of China," a $12.95 stack of steamer baskets featuring three kinds of dreadful house-made wontons: mealy ginger shiitake; bland, dry chile-chicken; and inoffensive ground shrimp and scallion. Both the shrimp and chicken were accompanied by sauces that tasted like barely doctored bottled hoisin sauce. "Spicy peanut chow-fun" ($7.95 at lunch with tofu or chicken or $9.95 with shrimp; $11.95 at dinner with tiger shrimp) was an unmitigated disaster. When I had it, it was prepared with Thai rice noodles, not Chinese chow-fun noodles, and worse, the Thai noodles were broken up into little bad-luck bits, and worse still, they were overcooked into one glutinous mound on the plate. With that many problems in one dish, it seems cruel to even mention the strange, spiceless peanut sauce made with half-cooked, peel-on cubes of Granny Smith apple.

Seem peculiar? Well, hold on to your hats, because the Red Fish Blue clam chowder ($2.95 for a cup, $5.50 a bowl), which the menu describes as a "hearty New England-style chowder with clams and white beans," was made with lots of celery, white beans, chives, and what must be tarragon. Child, that's not New England-style clam chowder: That's something different.

Of course, the puzzlement of the matter is that the Table of Contents team could no doubt make perfect clam chowder upside down, in the dark. On a rowboat. In a tornado.

Perhaps they should.

Until then, the only evidence of excellence that Red Fish Blue shows is in the wine list, and in the desserts. Desserts are stellar, for what they are--namely sturdy creations invented for a busy restaurant dealing with a vast crowd. Both the amusing cherry bomb ($4.95) and the chocolate pudding make good use of a half-sphere chocolate mold. The cherry bomb is two chocolate half-spheres filled with cherry ice cream and fitted together. It emerges from the kitchen fitted with a sparkler and sizzles festively. That the chocolate and the ice cream are very good makes this the best gimmick dessert in town. Order "bubble bubble" and you get half a sphere filled with chocolate pudding and anchored to the plate with a bit of chocolate ($4.95). Dark, glossy, and topped with real whipped cream, this is the best--the only?--restaurant chocolate pudding I've had.

Red Fish Blue is indeed busy. Every night I've been there, people have been stacked up by the door, hoping for tables. It's a nice restaurant to wait in, a trio of big, dark-walled, amply windowed rooms with graphic murals of fish or bubbles on the largest walls. It's a great place to sample from a well-chosen, inexpensive, adventurous wine list. The handful of little tables right by the door function as a wine bar, something the Macalester area has needed for a long time. If you do have a glass of wine in the wine bar, do me a favor and check something for me: Is there any kind of sign dangling in the kitchen, one that reads Gone Fishin'?

TABLEHOPPING:

FOOLS AND THEIR MAHI: Still reservationless for Valentine's Day? Perhaps you should dine with the fishes, at the Fourth Annual Tunnel of Love Event, at Underwater Adventures. "It's fantastic, it's awesome!" trumpets the possibly fishily biased Cindy Grzanowski, UA's director of marketing. "The way the aquarium is set up, it's not a typical aquarium experience. You actually go through an acrylic tunnel, so the fish are on all sides and above you." For the Love Event, 36 tables are arranged in the tunnels, which Grzanowski says twist and turn every few yards, so it's not like dining in a corridor, but like a small, three-or-so-table restaurant surrounded by sharks. Or walleye.

You see, tables are assigned first-come, first-served, so early birds can pick between Caribbean Reef, Shark Cove, Mississippi River, and Minnesota Lake. What says "I love you" more clearly: the bottom of Big Muddy, or sharks? I just can't decide. Even better, dinner starts with a "cocktail social" in Starfish Beach. "It's a new area," says Grzanowski. "It's designed for families with kids and has touch-pools with real sharks and stingrays. That usually makes people smile." (Of course, nothing makes me smile more than getting my drink on and grabbing a handful of prehistoric sea critter. Except contemplating the potential wickedness, that is: Dump your sweetie whilst wielding a steak knife in the presence of sharks for instant admission into the Evil Devil Date Hall of Fame.) "There's also a new ride," says Grzanowski. "It's a simulator, basically an underwater roller coaster. I don't know if a lot of people are going to be going on it after dinner and Champagne, though."

Oh, I don't know. You'd be surprised. I had to ask: Serving fish? Nope. Tunnelers get a double entrée of chicken with wild mushrooms and peppered flank steak, as well as Champagne and some other treats. (Vegetarian meals and nonalcoholic bubbly available on request.) For the macabre, Grzanowski did reveal one tantalizing tidbit: Underwater Adventures may host occasional cocktail hours on Friday nights, featuring sushi. Who among us is brave enough to eat tuna belly only a few inches from a hungry shark?

For more information or reservations, call Heather at Underwater Adventures, (952) 853-0611. Tickets cost $125 per couple, which includes meal and Champagne. Seatings are at 6:00 p.m., with a 5:30 cocktail social, and 8:30 p.m., with an 8:00 social. (Underwater Adventures, Mall of America, Bloomington, www.underwateradventures.net.)

(RE)DESIGNING D'AMICO: There's much ado about something at D'Amico Cucina these days: The bar closed January 2 and will reopen February 13, and the main dining room is closed February 4-12. When D'Expensive reopens, expect a new menu, as well as new daily tasting menus. All this menu-ing is the work of new D'Amico chef Seth Doherty, who took over the kitchen in early December. Manager Bill Summerville says Doherty and his sous chef have taken advantage of the front-of-the-house remodeling to travel to Italy, where they've dined their way through Piedmont, Tuscany, and Emilia-Romagna. Summerville says Doherty cooked at D'Amico Cucina years ago and has more recently wielded his knives in New York's Le Bernardin, and the Washington, D.C., Four Seasons. What will these changes mean for the average diner? Stay D'tuned.

LONGITUDE UNKNOWN: So what happened to former D'Amico chef J.P. Samuelson? According to materials I've seen from Kitchen Window, where Samuelson teaches occasional classes, he's working on opening his own place in downtown Minneapolis. It's tentatively called "45th Parallel," a line that reportedly connects several places renowned for good food.

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