Sea Notes

Restaurant Oceana, 8900 East Pinnacle Peak Road, Scottsdale, 515-2277. Hours: Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

How come comedians want to play Hamlet? Why do guys with good jobs and loving families fantasize about joining the merchant marine and shipping out on a freighter? Why do rural folks yearn to move to the city, and city folks dream about moving to the country? Why do we have such inexplicable desires and longings?

Here in the Valley, most of us share a collective longing, at least when it comes to restaurant fare. We're in the middle of the desert, hundreds of miles from the ocean. Nobody has spotted a sea gull in this vicinity since the Pleistocene Era. Our rivers are dry. The only sea we're familiar with is a sea of saguaro. So what's probably the most popular menu item in town? You guessed it--seafood.

It makes sense, in a way. Because seafood is locally scarce, it's inherently desirable. Tastiness and healthfulness further boost its value and appeal.

And we all understand just how hard, and costly, it is to get a fish out of the sea and onto a local grill within 24 to 48 hours. Fresh ocean fare has to be flown in. It's highly perishable. And even if it arrives here quickly and safely, there's no guarantee that a restaurant kitchen will cook it right. If the chef's attention wanders for even 30 seconds, that $20 piece of sole is going to taste like the sole of your shoe.

Geography and the laws of economics conspire to make aquatic fare a pricey mealtime option in these parts. So when I go out for fish, my feeling is: It had better be good. Happily, two new seafood restaurants are doing a wonderful job ministering to my feelings.

With almost no fanfare, Restaurant Oceana slipped into tony North Scottsdale about six months ago, tucked away in a hard-to-find nook in the La Mirada shopping complex at the northeast corner of Pinnacle Peak and Pima roads. Why the low profile? Maybe the chef/proprietor figured that once locals sampled his magnificent seafood, business would take off. It looks like he figured right.

He's no novice. Ercolino Crugnale came here from San Francisco, where he was executive chef at Fournou's Ovens, in the prestigious Stanford Court Hotel. This man knows where to find great seafood, and how to cook it, too.

He also knows that we sons of the pioneers don't like even our upscale restaurants stiff and formal. So this small place aims for a more casually stylish air. The walls are painted bright yellow and blue, and flowers are placed around the room. You can watch the chef and his crew at work in the glassed-in exhibition kitchen. You can also watch your fellow diners, very closely. That's because the tables here are set so close together, it's sometimes hard to know where your table ends and another begins.

Every fish on the small, daily changing menu was cavorting in the sea less than 24 hours ago, we're told. The produce is organic. The short wine list is first-rate. Everything with the exception of the bread (it's a Tuscan ciabatta from BreadCrafters, one of the best loaves in town) is made in-house, from scratch. And, I'm pleased to report, it's all simply smashing.

Be on guard: No one is going to leave here letting out the notches on his belt and groaning about an overstuffed belly. Portions are small. But that seems like a reasonable trade-off for the kind of quality Restaurant Oceana delivers.

Take the wonderful black mussels appetizer. They're heaped in an iron skillet and roasted in a wood oven. It's a simple preparation, and very effective. Silky, house-smoked salmon is exquisite, set atop three disks of blini and coated with creme fraiche. At $11, it may be necessary to consult with your accountant about the advisability of ordering the two, two-bite Dungeness crab cakes with tomatillo salsa. But as your restaurant adviser, I urge you to splurge. And check out the daily shellfish selection: Depending on the day, you may find jumbo Gulf shrimp, New England cherrystone clams and luscious, briny-fresh Belon oysters from Washington.

The main dishes are in a seafood class of their own. Diver-harvested Maine scallops are mesmerizing: four plump mollusks, wood-roasted to moist, translucent perfection, gilded with a perky red pepper sauce and teamed with a clever parsnip puree.

Pan-seared cod is nothing short of phenomenal. It, too, comes from Maine, from Casco Bay, and it's paired with horseradish mashed potatoes and a smoky bacon-leek broth.

Looking for something out of the ordinary? Somehow, on one visit, the kitchen got a shipment of wild steelhead, an incredibly tasty species of rainbow trout with pink, flaky flesh that resembles salmon. It came partnered with an inspired mix of wild mushrooms, quince and roasted potatoes.

The seafood stew is well-crafted: squid, clams, mussels, salmon and scallops in a light, summery tomato broth. Throw in some fennel rouille for added bite. At $16, the rock shrimp pasta is the lowest-priced entree, but that's not the least of its charms. Rock shrimp, sun-dried tomatoes, crushed red pepper and spinach are combined with orrechietti, and it's a masterful combination.

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