The Appearance of Value
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.
Which is the best thing to do at McCormick & Schmick's, since the place prides itself on its "scratch bar." All the citrus juices are squeezed fresh, there's no sour mix, no soda gun, and all the carbonated stuff comes out of glass bottles. (This is of particular delight, I've noticed, to people receiving cute little Coke bottles.) The bar also has what I think is the best happy-hour food in the metro: Every weekday from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m., Monday to Saturday from 10:00 to midnight, and Sundays 9:00 to 10:00 p.m., there are ten items available for $1.95, including a very good (really!) full-sized cheeseburger accompanied by good fries; steamed mussels served in a fresh-tomato white-wine cream sauce, and fish tacos that are easily the best I've had in the Twin Cities. The fish is tender, the chili-spice mixture on it perfectly balanced, the accompanying salsa perfectly fresh.
So--how can the food in the bar be so good and the food in the restaurant be so bad? Honestly, I don't know. I think the answer may partly be practice: That happy hour fills up daily, and those mussels seemed to be on nearly every table during one of my visits. With a menu that has 35 to 40 varieties of fish a day (from, as my server put it memorably one night, the "fresh-species list") and, by my count, at least 200 commonly used recipes, perhaps something like the tombo isn't ordered enough for the kitchen to find comfort with it. And, of course, there's the pricing: A $1.95 price tag hides a multitude of sins.
And don't think that McCormick & Schmick's doesn't think long and hard about its pricing: The prices are often bizarre: $14.80, $12.55, $9.30. What's up with that? "That's one of the tenets of our company," explains Mike Tewey, M&S's general manager: "It's in our mission statement: Value is critical to our success. Our large item list gives us the opportunity for a lot of cross-utilization of product, and we pass that value on to our customers. Our pricing philosophy has to do with marketing. It gives people the idea of more of a price range, and that there is a range." Then I burst out laughing, I think it was at the idea of creating an illusion of price range. Tewey also laughed, catching himself. "Do I sound brainwashed? I do. But it's a good thing--it's a great restaurant." Then he explained how they aim to be first in the hearts of those looking for fresh fish and value.
Fresh fish and value. Fresh fish and value. I puzzled over that one for a moment: Who's in search of fresh fish and spendthriftiness? Then I got it. So how does McCormick & Schmick's feel about the Oceanaire? After all, it's just a scant few blocks south on Nicollet Mall. "This is the first market we've gone into where there's a competitor copycatting what we do," said Tewey. Copycatting? When the Oceanaire opened in 1998? "We were the originator of the daily printed fresh seafood menu," insisted Tewey. (I'll let you know when the restaurant that claims to have originated daily specials or chalkboard menus calls in to clarify just who's copycatting whom.)
So, of course, this raises the question: Is the Oceanaire drastically more expensive? On my first visit to McCormick & Schmick's I thought it was--attribute it to that nifty appearance of value. But then I sat down with some menus and calculators and performed an unbelievably nerdy tit-for-tat comparison, revealing some surprising parities: Grilled Alaskan halibut at M&S is $19.95, sautéed California halibut has been $19.95 at the Oceanaire; fish and chips is $10.50 at M&S, $9.95 at the Oceanaire; Chilean sea bass was $19.90 at M&S, $22.95 at the big O--but the piece is significantly bigger. The only really noticeable savings at McCormick & Schmick's occur during happy hour, and in the oysters, which tend to be about 20 percent cheaper, and, of course, in the way that you have to buy many side dishes à la carte at the Oceanaire--you know the drill, $4.25 coleslaw, $7 hashbrowns. On the other hand, the coleslaw is so much better, the fish is so vastly more desirable, the music is so superior, who cares? After a cold-hearted run with the numbers, here's my final calculus: I'd call McCormick & Schmick's four-fifths the price of Oceanaire and half as good. But then again, if I weren't so cold at heart, maybe I'd have had a lot more fun in my snug.
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