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.

If you prefer your shrimp in meatier form, consider the pan-roasted prawns, five good-size specimens tinged with rosemary and accompanied by a delightful champagne risotto and intense mushroom reduction. Unfortunately, in the only culinary misstep we encountered, the mushroom "reduction" wasn't sufficiently reduced. The dish looked like soup, with waves of liquid lapping up against the shrimp and risotto.

The homemade desserts are as impressive as the seafood. Moist gingerbread cake sports a genuine ginger snap, and it comes coated with an enticing apple cider sabayon. Chocolate cake with a warm chocolate center is becoming a dessert cliche, but the rich version here, served with tart, homemade lemon ice cream, makes the lack of creativity easy to overlook. And the macadamia nut-honey square, topped with intense chocolate truffle ice cream, sends you home with a sugar-charged smile.

Restaurant Oceana has brought big-city seafood to seafood-starved desert dwellers. I'm hooked.

M & S Fish Company, 4306 North Seventh Avenue, Phoenix, 265-3189. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 1 to 8 p.m.

Seafood in the desert is never going to be cheap. But at M & S Fish Company, it's the next best thing: affordable.

This place has been in business since last summer, taking over the digs formerly occupied by the Fish Company of Arizona.

The new owners have turned the storefront into a spiffy, friendly, down-home market/restaurant. Fish-themed prints hang on the walls. Rows of fresh fish line the refrigerated case. On a typical day, you might see catfish, mahimahi, buffalofish, shrimp, orange roughy, trout and red snapper on display. When the television over the counter isn't tuned to a Suns game, the radio is tuned to an oldies station. The proprietor has invested in good-looking wood tables and cushioned chairs, so your dine-in experience is quite comfortable.

Start off with clam chowder, very creamy and well-stocked with clams. But don't be tempted by either the shrimp or seafood cocktail, the two most disappointing efforts here. The $3.99 shrimp cocktail features five very puny shrimp; the $8.99 seafood cocktail brings the same puny shrimp, plus some undistinguished jarred oysters, a couple of scallops and tasteless deep-fried clam strips. If you crave this kind of cocktail, you'll do better at almost any Mexican seafood joint.

But for value and quality, you can't do much better than M & S's fish dinners. You can get your fish prepared a variety of ways: deep-fried, grilled, charbroiled, with or without Cajun seasonings. And the kitchen knows what it's doing.

If orange roughy is available, don't hesitate. I had it charbroiled, and was rewarded with a piece of moist, delicate perfection. Red snapper is another winner, especially if you ask for it grilled and zipped up with Cajun spices. The proprietor suggested that I get the buffalofish deep-fried, and I'm glad I took her advice. The carplike creature has white, flaky flesh and a mild flavor. But watch out for the small bones, which are impossible to fillet out completely. Grilled mahimahi, meanwhile, is as good as any you'd get in a fancy seafood restaurant, and it comes at half the price.

Sometimes M & S stocks colossal shrimp, which run maybe eight or so to the pound. At 29 bucks a pound, they're also colossally priced. But if you splurge and get a couple of these beauties deep-fried, as I did, you'll remember why you loved shrimp in the first place. And keep your eyes out for an occasional gumbo special, which features lots of crab and sausage in a very rich gravy, served over rice.

M & S also puts some energy into its side dishes--you get two with every dinner. There's nothing remarkable about the freezer-bag fries or canned green beans. But the greens, perked up with a slab of bacon, have real back-country flair. The fresh, homemade cole slaw is also a good choice. Crisp hushpuppies will cost you a couple of bucks extra, but it's money well spent.

The display case usually features a couple of homemade desserts. It's hard to tell where the lemon stops and sugar starts in the lemon pound cake, but it's a question I don't mind leaving unanswered. Sweet potato pie is even better, rich, heavy and seasoned with just about every dessert spice in the rack.  

Having trouble reeling in dinner from the Salt River Bridge? Don't have enough dough to bait a fishhook? At M & S Fish Company, you can confidently drop your line.

Restaurant Oceana:
Smoked salmon
Pan-seared cod
Wild steelhead
Gingerbread cake with cider sabayon

M & S Fish Company:
Clam chowder (cup)
Orange roughy
Sweet potato pie

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