AQUA LUNGE

Superfish, 8668 East Shea, Scottsdale, 948-1313. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., seven days a week.

Despite fervent wishes, some things are unlikely to change. Most of us know, for example, that we'll never transform our bodies into sleek slabs of muscle. Genetics, eight hours a day in an office cubicle and annual birthdays conspire against us. Peace on Earth? We know that the day swords are beaten into plowshares is the day that plowshares are discovered to be a more effective battlefield weapon. And we know we have as much chance of finding cheap fresh fish in a Valley restaurant as finding a new car at the advertised price. Geography, high demand and a delicate product keep local fish prices up. A California entrepreneur, though, has come to the Valley determined to do something about the expense of dining on denizens of the deep. The cost of almost every plate on Superfish's menu can be written using only three numerals, two of them to the right of the decimal point. This is no fast-food joint, either--you get seated and served. Located in a new shopping strip in rapidly growing north Scottsdale, Superfish carefully avoids the downscale fast-food look of a fish-and-chips parlor.

It's a square, boxy place, optimistically large. To keep the room from resembling a truck-stop cafeteria, wood alcoves with geometric designs cleverly divide the area. Along the far wall are old-fashioned, textbook-style prints of fish, their names spelled out in English, French, German and Latin. Fortunately, there was no test at the end of the meal. Overhead, yellow neon tubing shaped into the form of a squid furnishes a splash of color. Along with the regular menu, Superfish offers a few daily specials. Just about anything would have seemed more interesting than the bay shrimp cocktail or fried calamari, the menu's only two appetizer options. So the shrimp-cakes starter got everyone's vote. More important, it retained everyone's support even after we downed it. The five fried croquettes had a freshly made taste and genuine shrimp flavor. The New England clam chowder didn't fare quite so well. No problem with the texture--thick but not gluey--but the principal sea flavor it sported was salt. And the clams were rubbery enough to bounce. The basket of garlic cheese toast, though, improved our mood. Superfish will prepare most of its aquatic life four ways: blackened, Oriental-style, grilled or charbroiled. Blackened catfish seemed like a sensible choice to test what the kitchen could do. While hardly a monstrous slab, the portion was certainly ample, and it was cooked to moist perfection with a crisp, blackened crust. But the blackening spices got completely lost, submerged by tons of salt. I usually take my beatings without much complaint: I listen to my wife talk about her plants; I don't switch supermarket lanes even when the customer in front of me has a dozen expired coupons; and I eat what's in front of me. But even I had to scrape off the unpalatable blackened coating. Grilled salmon, the most expensive dinner at $10.95, is actually a bargain, since most salmon entrees run about $15 locally. You won't find any delicate sauces or exotic side dishes here, but the kitchen knows that with a good piece of fish, less can be more. No need to toss this fillet back. Seafood kebab features a couple of shrimp, a couple of scallops and three chunks of mahimahi that the waitress confided were frozen, not fresh. Lilliputian amounts of tomato, pepper and mushroom also got skewered. While this dish will not generate spasms of ecstasy, it should furnish an agreeable seafood fix. The scallops, in particular, are a juicy treat. The tempura combo, however, starts Superfish on the slippery slope of compromise. The thickly battered mahimahi sticks have a commercial touch, but at least it's an agreeable one. The breaded shrimp and scallop, though, are disasters. No way are the shrimp here the same as those firm, meaty creatures in my seafood kebab platter. And the tiny pellets that try to pass for scallops ought to be ashamed of themselves. Neither is Superfish's foray into seafood pasta a success. Linguini with clams comes doused in so much white wine that management ought to check IDs before serving it. Although the platter promised olive oil, I couldn't detect even a whiff of the distinctive aroma. And the clams hadn't gotten any more tender since I left them in the clam chowder. It seems to me that if you're only going to serve two desserts--apple pie and cheesecake--you could track down the city's best suppliers without too much effort. Superfish didn't. Why should anyone bother staying for sweets? Superfish's basic idea should be popular with Valley fish lovers: Serve reasonable portions of good seafood at affordable prices in a casual restaurant setting. But the kitchen still has to take the leap from conception to execution. Slickers, 1515 North 44th Street (Embassy Suites), 275-5100. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

Slickers, on the other hand, doesn't seem to have gotten past even the idea stage. The room looks like it was designed by the guys in corporate division's accounting office. The place has all the panache of an office reception area: by-the-numbers abstract paintings, overhead lights on fixtures of brass tubing and fake red geraniums. A few desultory fish on the wall are the only clue that this is a seafood restaurant. While the decor is merely uninspired, the loud, piped-in rock music is genuinely annoying. It seemed to be aired mostly for the benefit of the young staff. The amateur service gave us lots of time to ponder the surroundings and fulminate against Top 40 pop music. The staff here oozes ineptitude, but management is the real culprit. Though the restaurant was nearly empty, we sat around some ten minutes before someone noticed we didn't have menus. Two places lacked cutlery, plates and glasses. Food appeared before the previous course had been cleared away. Our waiter brought the appetizers and salad course simultaneously. When we objected, he took away the salad. Later, he brought the salad and main dishes together. Orders got botched. Instead of fries, one diner got baked potato. Another plate was missing vegetables. The seafood bowl came with neither a shell cracker nor a soup spoon. Later, we found out that the restaurant staff does double duty as room-service waiters. While this helps explain the backed-up courses and fitful bouts of attentiveness, it doesn't excuse it. Oh, the food. Not surprisingly, like the service, it's mostly disappointing. The clam chowder showed some promise--a thick, creamy texture with a briny tang. But unless it was some sort of unadvertised clam chowder gazpacho, it came several dozen degrees short of warmed up. A reliable purveyor is more important for consumers of oysters on the half shell and shrimp cocktail than kitchen wizardry. Slickers has found one who can meet demands of freshness and taste. Perhaps in response to a decree from corporate headquarters, Slickers makes a fuss about preparing the dinner salad tableside. If our waiter had tossed it with anything remotely different or unusual, I might have been a little more impressed. But it's hard to get too worked up over an ordinary bunch of greens, even if we could have them sprinkled with grated cheese and freshly ground pepper. Except for a couple of steaks and chicken fettuccine, seafood is the order of the day. Halibut is a decent-size eight-ounce fillet, properly cooked and tickled with a dill mustard sauce ladled out with a thimble. If you think my pal was unhappy when he got a baked potato with his fish instead of fries, you should have seen him when he tried to butter it. This undercooked, lukewarm spud couldn't have melted the butter by Thanksgiving. Salmon in a dull hollandaise came distressingly undercooked, virtually raw in the center. And the side of squash and cauliflower was unseasoned by anything except what came through the air-conditioning ducts. On the other hand, the steamer pot was delightful, stocked full of clams, mussels, scallops, shrimp, crab legs and crayfish in a tubful of zesty, lemon-tinged broth. The dish, however, cried out for a better starch than the warmed-up garlic rolls that accompanied dinner. No doubt about the tastiest item we sampled: a small chafing dish of scallops, shrimp and crab in a rich lobster sauce that had us looking around for more. Don't expect much in the way of dessert. The chocolate silk and carrot cakes had that unmistakable trucked-in look, delivering more calories than taste. Slickers doesn't seem to have ambitions beyond being a convenient restaurant stop for tired hotel guests who don't want to leave the premises. But inertia works two ways: I can't imagine too many local diners making it a special seafood destination, either.

 
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