Crabby Chic

If middle-school kids work at all, they might mow lawns or deliver papers to earn a few bucks. My first job was a little more unusual. Almost 20 years ago, I worked at my parents' seafood shop, spending hours picking shell from piles of crabmeat for my mom's homemade crab cakes, which were so good that local restaurants tried to pass them off as their own.

To this day, I'm super picky about crab cakes, so I'll get the heresy out of the way right now: Wildfish Seafood Grille's crab cakes rival my own mother's. (More on that in a sec.)

My dad had started the seafood business when I was 7, making late-night drives from Pennsylvania to the fish market in Baltimore so he could haul back the latest catch and sell it at a Saturday morning farmers' market. Soon my parents had a full-fledged storefront, and seafood — something I previously considered exotic, something you'd see on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous — became a mundane part of my life.


Wildfish Seafood Grille

7135 East Camelback Road (at the Scottsdale Waterfront), Scottsdale

Hot goat cheese and wild mushroom salad: $7.95

Crab cake: $13.96

Sauted Alaskan halibut: $22.95

Godiva cake: $6.95

480-994-4040, web link.
Hours: Dinner, 5 to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday; happy hour, 4:30 to 7 p.m. daily.

It was only natural that I'd help out. I remember looking at my preteen hands: withered as an old woman's from washing pans with bleach, knuckles sore from reaching into piles of spiny shrimp, and nails chipped from counting out dozens of clams. In comparison to my other chores, sifting through piles of crabmeat to find bits of crab shell was like meditation. After Mom taught me her secret crab-cake recipe — a simple one that used just the minimum amount of ingredients to hold the thing together — I was mixing them up like a pro. The crab cakes sold like, um, hotcakes.

That's always my point of reference when I eat crab cakes at a restaurant. I almost expect to be let down somehow, assuming that nobody could possibly stuff more crabmeat into those puppies than Mom (or me). But I was blown away by the all-lump crab cake at Wildfish Seafood Grille, a sleek new spot at the Scottsdale Waterfront owned by executive chef John M. Carver and the same seafood pros who own Eddie V's Edgewater Grille. Just barely browned, with way more emphasis on crab than cake, the appetizer was as big around as the rim of my martini glass. Tangy, creamy chive rémoulade served with it was delicious, but honestly, it didn't even need it — fresh horseradish mixed into the meat gave each bite a burst of sweetness and a hint of sinus-clearing heat.

The crab cake wasn't the only thing that dazzled me about Wildfish. The drama started before I walked in the door. At the patio entrance, I passed through two illuminated columns, shimmering with cascading water. Inside, suspended from the ceiling, was a museum-size wooden sculpture that reminded me of a boat hull or a whale skeleton. Drum-shaped gold lights cast a warm glow, and deep cobalt accents added glamour. There was a packed bar in the middle of the room (with a TV, unfortunately), where a well-dressed young crowd drank cocktails and grazed from plates of shrimp and raw Bluepoint oysters. It was very Scottsdale chic, but not in a flashy, pimped-out way.

I'm getting used to ridiculously large portions everywhere I go, but still, the servings at Wildfish were XXL. Aside from the entrees themselves, everything on the menu was big enough for at least two people to share. Yeah, you can't have too much of a good thing, but what if (like me) you prefer variety over quantity? The generous salad of mixed greens and sesame-flavored dressing was really filling, with crisp slices of Fuji apple, candied walnuts, and RazzCherries (candy-sweet dried cherries infused with raspberry flavor), and the hot goat cheese and wild mushroom salad, with caramelized shallots, arugula, and champagne vinaigrette, was hearty enough to be an entree. My twice-baked potato, mixed with cheese and topped with smoky crumbles of bacon, was about three potatoes' worth of filling packed into one skin. And a guilty-pleasure side of onion rings — crispy slivers with luscious blue cheese fondue to pour on top — fed four of us. (We had leftovers of everything else, but those disappeared fast.)

A lot of the dishes had a creative Asian spin. Crispy cashew calamari, with thick-cut, extremely tender fried squid, was a far cry from the standard; here, it was tossed with soy, ginger, bean sprouts, shreds of carrot, and crunchy rice noodles. Salt and pepper Gulf shrimp got the wok treatment, too, with chile, ginger, scallions, and a soy-flavored dipping sauce. Sautéed salmon, lightly smoked, came with a side of salty black bean sauce, and the seared Pacific ahi steak, topped with a spicy mushroom and chile sauce, was paired with strong wasabi mashed potatoes.

It wasn't all hot stuff. I took a walk on the mild side with jumbo Georges Bank scallops, sautéed with a handful of macadamia nuts. The crisp, bright taste of fresh grapefruit slices added a cool contrast to the scallops' creamy texture and brown-buttery richness. A chunky pile of crabmeat came with the breaded grouper, also sautéed in butter. This was the only dish that verged on boring, but still, like everything I ate at Wildfish, it was perfectly cooked. And sautéed Alaskan halibut was soothing — snowy white meat lightly breaded, browned, and placed on a pool of marinara.

Expect to give a 20-minute notice for the best desserts on the menu, made from scratch and served hot out of the oven: homey, not-too-sugary apple and cinnamon cobbler, and velvety, hysteria-inducing Godiva chocolate cake. Both came with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. If I had any room left in my stomach, I would've tried the cinnamon-raisin bread pudding, too.

Actually, I take that back. I would've ordered another crab cake.


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