OAR D'OEUVRES

The Seafood Market and Restaurant, 1318 West Southern, Mesa, 890-0435. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 2 to 8 p.m.

People, like animals, have instincts to tell them when they ought to flee.
When the saleslady says, "The wide, green stripes on that skirt make your hips look slim," head for the hills.

When the car dealer gives you his word as a gentleman that the odometer reading of 38,422 miles on the 1978 Impala is absolutely reliable, run and don't look back.

And when a seafood-restaurant owner insists frozen fish can be every bit as good as fresh, hoist up your anchor and run.

Places that serve frozen fish should be required to note that fact. Perhaps they could post a Sturgeon General's warning: "Frozen-fish zone--please lower your expectations." Of course, purveyors of cryogenically preserved aquatic life have a point when they detail the shortcomings of fresh fish. Week-old unfrozen fish that rumbles into the Valley on a mule train may be "fresh" in one sense, but not a very meaningful one. Fish frozen at sea is much less likely to be mishandled or spoiled by the time it gets to Phoenix. It's certainly cheaper, too.

And even just-pulled-from-the-sea fish loses all its advantages if it's poorly prepared.

So we visited a couple of Valley fish houses looking for fish fresh enough to throw back, and a kitchen that wouldn't make us want to. The Mesa branch of the Seafood Market and Restaurant (there's also one in Ahwatukee) thankfully doesn't go overboard on clich‚d nautical memorabilia and knickknacks, like most of its competitors. Sure, there's the inevitable net, the half-naked prow figurehead and trophy fish on the wall. But I didn't spot a single photo of Ernest Hemingway hoisting his catch, and the rest rooms weren't labeled "buoys" and "gulls."

Unfortunately, the Tiffany-style lamps, hanging plants and ugly television on the counter are hardly gratifying, landlubber decor alternatives. Only the "graffiti wall," sporting the scribbled praises of satisfied patrons, temporarily breathes some life into this dull setting.

"We've run out of ceviche, ahi tuna and mahimahi," the waiter told us over the course of the evening, news I took as an encouraging sign. It meant the proprietors probably don't overpurchase, and that tonight's dinner wouldn't be yesterday's unordered leftovers.

We started with a basket of peel-your-own shrimp, a dozen oversize critters with a frisky cocktail sauce. They were enormously disappointing. They were either overcooked, laid out on ice too long, or both. "Mushy" and "rubbery" are never the adjectives that should precede "shrimp."

On the other hand, the oysters Rockefeller were divine. The menu promised four, but we got five--that's the kind of quality control I can live with. The dish brought succulent, tender oysters in the half-shell, on a bed of spinach, baked with a creamy cheese sauce. "He was a bold man that first eat an oyster," wrote Jonathan Swift. Not these.

Dinners come with serviceable New England clam chowder or routine salad, nothing to set a heart aflame.

But the fish is something else. It's flat-out wonderful, fresh and perfectly cooked. As my 12-year-old, brought up on a diet of microwave fish sticks, put it: "Whoever thought fish could be this good?"

She opted for the Hawaiian marlin, a meaty specimen that will remind you of a juicy steak. After her first bite brought forth an involuntary "Wow," she told me to grab my tithe quickly. She didn't trust her willpower to leave me any, she explained. Encircling the plate with her arms, she spent the rest of the meal eyeing me mistrustfully.

She had nothing to worry about, because I was preoccupied demolishing the New Zealand orange roughy. This fabulous fish came somewhat unnecessarily gussied up--butter, mushrooms, green onion and wine--but nothing could detract from its sublime flavor. The Seafood Market and Restaurant makes a big point about its method of preparation. It uses hot-air ovens to simulate a 40-mile-per-hour wind at 500 degrees to cook the fish hot and fast. It seems like you can achieve the same results putting out fish on the front porch on a breezy Valley June afternoon. The swordfish here was nothing short of ethereal. I've sampled so many heavy, mealy, dried-out versions that I've almost forgotten why this fish commands such a high price. Not anymore. This piece was so light it practically floated above the plate.

And the Alaskan halibut is simply the best I've had in ages; a generous slab, moist, flaky and butter soft. Any similarity between this and the frozen bricks in your grocer's freezer is purely coincidental.

While the fish deserves every accolade I can heap on it, the accompanying dishes should walk the plank. Blah baked potato, mayonnaise-drenched pasta salad and cafeteria-style rice are not fit to sail along with the superb fish. Scuttle the tasteless hunks of zucchini, too.

Nor can the service keep up with the fish. Young, amateurish waiters, outfitted in foolish "I got crabs at the Seafood Market" aprons, forgot dishes and expected us to help clear the table. And while I can forgive management for running out of fish, I'm less tolerant about running out of decaf and rest-room towels.

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