BUOY MEETS GILL

Whale and Ale, 1401 East Bell Road, Phoenix, 942-0644. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week; Sunday brunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Even though our ancestors crawled out of the primordial ooze eons ago, a lust for fishy fare still seems to be embedded in our genetic code. Not even living in the desert Southwest, surrounded by a sea of saguaros, can suppress the urge. I'd say it's an instinct, like overstating charitable contributions on your income tax form. Two restaurant newcomers to the Valley, I'm thrilled to report, now give us seafood lovers the motive and opportunity to indulge our cravings. At both Whale and Ale and Landry's Pacific Fish Co., the fresh fish is so good, you half expect to see sea gulls circling overhead.

The birds would be a long way from anything that looked familiar. Lined with car dealers, semivacant shopping strips and guys selling sheepskin steering-wheel covers from the back of a van, the stretch of Bell Road between Seventh Street and Cave Creek Road is unlikely to be confused with Nantucket. In the past, heading to this part of town looking for seafood made as much sense as heading to the Arizona legislature searching for Mensa candidates. But Whale and Ale is good enough to rearrange the navigational charts. The place--surprise, surprise--sports the same nautical theme that seafood restaurants have been using since Noah pulled into port. Walls are covered with aquatic gimcrackery--floats, nets and life rings. The pay telephone is set in a giant fake clam shell. The rest rooms, inevitably labeled "gulls" and "bouys," could benefit from a proofreader.

The "bouys" misspelling isn't a serious lapse. The televisions in the dining areas are. During both my visits, the sets were broadcasting the usual drivel. But it's not what's on that bothers me--I wouldn't be any less annoyed if they were tuned to Masterpiece Theatre. Dining in front of the television at home is bad enough; in a restaurant, it's barbaric. Especially since Whale and Ale's dinners merit your undivided attention. Oyster lovers are going to be happy. The restaurant lists about a dozen varieties, about half of which seem to be available on any particular day. Quilcenes, harvested off Washington, and Golden Mantles from British Columbia each offer sweet sea taste. And the house version of oysters Rockefeller, fashioned from Gulf oysters, is exceptional, gilded with bacon, spinach and cheese.

The two soups make equally wonderful starters. Creamy New England clam chowder is thick but not gummy, larded with tender clams and packed with a distinctive peppery kick. Lip-smacking seafood gumbo comes even more heavily stocked. At $2.75 a cup, though, they're no bargain. You're better off shelling out an extra six bits for the big $3.50 bowl--you get at least twice as much. Meals come with less-than-sensational dinner rolls and an uninspired salad. Use the time they're set before you to get your conversation in. Once the fresh fish arrives, you may be too distracted to talk. Blackboards around the room, listing about 20 species, tell you what's fresh and available. Once you've chosen, the kitchen will prepare it one of six ways: skillet-blackened Cajun style, Southwestern style (a vigorously spicy blend of tomato, cilantro, cayenne and jalape€o), battered and fried, baked with garlic butter, Northwestern style (pan-saut‚ed with scallions, tomato, mushrooms and bacon) and simply charbroiled. But, of course, everything starts with the fish itself. If it's been a while getting from boat to table, or unskillfully prepared, it won't cause any excitement even if it arrives covered with truffles or braised in a hundred-dollar bottle of wine. From what I sampled, it's pretty clear Whale and Ale has secured both a reliable supplier and able kitchen talent. Black marlin is a treat, a meaty, firm-fleshed fish that's as close to a steak as a sea creature can get. It's not unlike swordfish, but with a more assertive flavor. It can more than stand up to the fragrant Northwestern preparation our waitress suggested for it. Alaskan halibut is perfect for folks who don't like fishy-tasting fish. In fact, if you order it Southwestern style, you may not even know there's fish under the overpowering hot sauce. And to me, that was the problem. I enjoyed the halibut, and I enjoyed the topping, but this was a case where the total dish didn't equal the sum of its parts. But that's certainly not the case with the salmon Wellington, a house specialty that's one of the best fish platters in town. The Pacific salmon foundation is lusciously moist and delicate. It's steamingly hot, enfolded by a puff pastry shell lined with duxelles (creamy chopped mushrooms) blended with spinach. Champagne dill sauce adds to the effect. The clearest indication of Whale and Ale's quality came from the grouper, a white-fleshed fish found off Florida that ought to be on more seafood menus. We ordered it charbroiled, so the kitchen had no way to mask its freshness or disguise inept cooking. It was perfect: flaky, moist and irresistible.

Naturally, someone in your group, raised on Mrs. Paul's, is going to pass up the fresh fish and demand the fried seafood platter. So I did my professional duty and ordered it. Yes, the kitchen has to thaw out the scallops, shrimp and cod components. But, to my delight, the puffy, nongreasy batter turns this entree into a palatable option.

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