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.

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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