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 jalapeo), battered and fried, baked with garlic butter, Northwestern style (pan-sauted 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.
Side dishes don't get as much respect. Rice, French fries, whole red potatoes and unseasoned slices of squash can't compete with the fish. But the homemade desserts can. The cream puff will undo all the nutritional benefits of the fish dinner. So will the excellent banana coconut cream pie. Let me heap on a bit more praise. The servers are polite, the hostesses cheery and the whole operation customer-friendly. When I pointed out to the waitress that the oysters Rockefeller plate had seven oysters, instead of the usual half-dozen, she told me the kitchen threw on an extra one because one of the original critters seemed a bit undersize. If management cares enough to sweat details like the size of an oyster, you can pretty well bet it's on top of everything else.
One of the unfortunate realities of seafood meals in the desert is cost. Fresh fish is not cheap, so you don't want to make any mistakes about where you dine on it. At Whale and Ale, there are no mistakes.
Landry's Pacific Fish Co., 4321 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 941-0602. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
When the Pacific Fish Co. went belly-up, Landry's, a Texas-based seafood chain, swiftly moved in to fish the rich Scottsdale waters.
The new owners haven't fiddled with the look. The place still houses enough nautical equipment to outfit the Pequod. Diners are surrounded by paddles, nets, mounted fish and shells. There's even a small boat suspended from the ceiling. And Landry's is huge, too, three dining levels buzzing with action. But nobody could be buzzing over the cold appetizer plate for two, the meal's only disappointment. I know seafood's costly, but the platter's price-value ratio seemed seriously out of whack. We got two oysters, two nibbles of blackened ahi tuna sashimi (a less than inspired idea), one shrimp, two crab claws, some crab leg, a bite of smoked salmon and a tablespoon of ceviche, for a whopping $16.95. Ouch.
You're better off filling up for free on the excellent house sourdough bread, a steaming, fresh-baked loaf, and relying on the chowders and well-crafted salads that come with the meals. Both the caesar and spinach salads are miles better than most dinnertime greenery.
The menu lists some 15 fresh fish, priced between $15.95 and $20.95. For $1.95 more, you can top them with one of 14 sauces, such as barnaise, macadamia nut butter and mango ginger. For $3.95 more, you can have the kitchen heap on more substantial toppings that contain shrimp or crab meat. Matching fish to topping is daunting--there are hundreds of potential combinations--so I asked our server if she could advise us. She could--someone here obviously takes time to train the staff. In fact, service in general, even on a chaotic Saturday night, was impressive. When the manager came by to check on us, for instance, we mentioned our coffee was low. Instead of promising to tell the busperson, he ran for it himself.
The fish, skillfully grilled over charcoal, displays real quality. A mild-mannered friend practically did cartwheels over the Norwegian salmon, and I could understand his enthusiasm. It's a lusciously juicy creature. Moist ahi tuna is adeptly brought off the flames while still a bit pink in the center. Halibut is pretty as a picture, temptingly flaky. And thresher shark sports the meaty taste I like in fish.
The sauces and toppings, though, do more for Landry's bottom line than they do for the fish. Jalapeo hollandaise, herb lime butter and the Pontchartrain topping (a creamy white wine sauce with mushrooms and crab meat) don't provide much of a boost, maybe because the unadorned fish itself doesn't need any boosting.
A couple of the side dishes are more than afterthoughts. Twice-baked potato, stuffed with thick mashed spuds, is wonderful, especially once you scrape off the tasteless yellow cheese varnish. The simple mixed vegetable medley also hits the target.
So do the supplier-fashioned cheesecake desserts. The artfully plated Snickers bar and white chocolate-raspberry versions put a sweet exclamation mark on the meal. Good vibes, good service, good fish: Together, they put Landry's on the short list of worthwhile Valley seafood houses.
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