OAR D'OEUVRES

The Seafood Market and Restaurant is right to focus mainly on the quality of its superb fresh fish--that's what hooks customers in this fish-starved town. If it ever decides to apply that same dedication and effort to atmosphere, service and land-based fare, this can become a restaurant of real distinction. The Fish Market, 1720 East Camelback, Phoenix, 277-3474. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 10 p.m.

An expanding California chain, the Fish Market moved into Phoenix about eight years ago. Upstairs is the pricey Top of the Market, with tablecloths and fancier fish presentations. Downstairs, where we ate, is a more casual spot, where servers introduce themselves and replunk your used cutlery back on the table for the next course.

The principal decorative motif consists of photos of dead celebrities holding dead fish. We spotted Bing Crosby and Herbert Hoover. A more diligent search, I'm certain, would have turned up Ernest Hemingway and maybe even Captain Ahab.

At the back of the room, there's a fetching mural of a picturesque wharf with seaside homes and restaurants. Along the side wall is the glass-enclosed kitchen, where you can watch fresh fillets hit the grill above the mesquite coals.

The menu, like the fish, is fresh, printed daily, with an awesome selection ranging from line-caught Florida yellow-fin tuna to Hawaiian mako shark, from Chilean sea bass to Idaho rainbow trout.

Lured by the prospect of house-smoked fish, we bit on the trout, and happily got reeled in. It's terrific, a pungent, smoky taste flavorfully complemented with Brie and red onions. The ceviche didn't do quite so well. Nothing wrong with the gobs of juicy halibut or the perky salsa. But someone went overboard with the lime, and we went through several minutes of involuntary spasmodic puckering.

Dinner comes with wonderful, thick sourdough bread. Unfortunately, you're better off swabbing it with butter and eating it on its own than dipping into the mucilaginous New England clam chowder. Lacking the fragrance of butter and cream, the version here has all the briny appeal of drywall.

The tomato-based Manhattan chowder will seem better only in comparison, a thin broth with little kick. And the salad alternative is highly resistible.

Since every entree comes with soup or salad, you'd think a little more care would go into them. But, like the Seafood Market and Restaurant, most of the effort here goes into the fish. And it shows.

The Chilean sea bass was prepared to perfection. If you don't like "fishy" fish, this is the species for you. It has flaky, white meat and it's as tender as medium-rare filet mignon. The Fish Market pulled it off the grill at just the right moment.

Mako shark delivers a more aquatic taste, strongly flavored dark meat that's easy to overcook. The kitchen, though, steered it successfully through the grilling reefs.

Farm-raised catfish doesn't hit the mark everywhere, but the Fish Market's supplier provided a tasty, mild specimen. And petrale sole meuniäre came crisply saut‚ed outside, moist and delicate inside.

I wish the go-withs and desserts had received the same attention. Parsleyed red potatoes won't get any palates throbbing, while au gratin potatoes and dry rice barely rose to the level of uninteresting. The unseasoned heap of steamed veggies--carrots, broccoli, squash--demonstrated that sometimes Nature needs a little help.

Homemade sweets also weren't able to swim with the fish. Chocolate earthquake cake barely nudged the needle on the dessert seismograph. Cheesecake failed my calorie-to-taste test.

The Fish Market is a mammoth operation--it's got its own boats and oyster farm, and purchases more than 90 tons of seafood a month. It does a fine job serving expertly prepared fresh fish at reasonable cost. Now someone from corporate headquarters should make sure everything else reaches that standard.

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