Dana Centrella is a fish fanatic. This Delaware native is a man with a mission: to educate and inform Phoenicians about fish. Specifically, he wants us to know that fish does not have to taste "fishy." Neither does it have to be expensive. And you don't need fancy sauces to enhance the flavor. If it's been caught correctly, not mishandled, and shipped quickly, it will taste good naturally. For the last five years, Centrella's teaching laboratory has been the Seafood Market and Restaurant in Ahwatukee. This clean little retail fish store prides itself on selling only fish that is fresh, never frozen. It also boasts casual restaurant service for those of us who don't want to cook fish ourselves.
For substantially less than you'd pay elsewhere, you can enjoy Centrella's fresh fish, live lobsters, crabs and other assorted shellfish, cooked to order. The shellfish is steamed or broiled. The fish is prepared fat-free in a Rair hot-air oven. The science of this modern convenience is beyond me; suffice it to say this microwave-sized device cooks at 500 degrees Fahrenheit with "winds" up to forty miles per hour. Kind of like the Sahara, huh?
The results are wonderful. I'd weather a few sand dunes for fish this tender and honest. Eating under Centrella's tutelage is like learning a whole new vocabulary, fin by fin. "Ah, so this is marlin," you say to yourself. "I like it." You begin to feel adventurous. "Next time," you think, "I'll try the Chilean sea bass or the thresher shark."
Such bravery is easily mustered because this is one of the few places where you have nothing to lose by trying something new. At most restaurants, seafood is expensive, you can't be sure of the quality and you may not like the way it's prepared. Result? You stick with the same old same old.
But at the Seafood Market, you're assured of fresh, top-quality fish prepared consistently time after time. Sure, you might spend as much as $10.95 for ahi tuna, but you're paying for the fish itself, not for some sauce made of capers or white chocolate or almonds that you may not like. And, as Professor Centrella himself might say: All the fish he sells is good, it's just all different. Neptune has no favorites. At the original Seafood Market and Restaurant in Ahwatukee, glass cases display the day's fresh catch, laid out like colors of the oceanic rainbow. There are bubbling tanks strewn with kelp in which live lobsters and Dungeness crabs lurk. There are cases of clams, oysters and shrimp from Mexico and Taiwan. There are also endorsements and autographs, penned on the white walls with red and blue felt-tip markers, from business people, visitors, sports stars and regular folk.
On the day a seafood-loving dining accomplice and I visit for lunch, we sit on high stools at a table covered with a blue-and-white checkered cloth. I like the atmosphere. I feel at home here. I like looking at the filleted fish and live lobsters. Not that I'm paranoid, but it makes me feel secure. You point to something, they cook it up. Service is casual, but well-meaning and informed.
We start with delicious, chunky clam chowder. Unlike so many other bad chowders I've suffered through, this one is not gloppy. We follow up with steamed clams, marlin in barbecue sauce, and sea scallops. The fish and seafood are delectable, with the texture God gave them intact. The sweet steamers are especially fine. They come with hot water and melted butter for a traditional one-two dip.
If I have one complaint about eating at the Seafood Market, it's that the meal gets a little starchy once the go-withs are piled on. Each entree is served with sourdough bread, greaseless fries and pasta salad. While the pasta salad has a nice flavor, thanks to a substantial amount of dill, it's nothing fantastic: overcooked tricolored rotini tossed with inconsequential bay shrimp and imitation crab. I know price is an issue, but I want more from a store so fanatical about quality. I want real shrimp and real crab. Outside of these small complaints, I have nothing but rave reviews for this little shop.
But the story doesn't end here. At the end of May, Dana Centrella and his wife Gwenn opened a second, restaurant-only location on Southern Avenue in Mesa. My dining accomplice and I stop in for a late lunch on a Saturday, a few weeks after its opening.
The new restaurant reminds me of an old-time pizza parlor. Cozy vinyl booths line the windows and, from the ceiling, fake Tiffany lamps alternate with silk hanging planters. The walls are covered with cedar, except for one shiny white wall left for signatures. Tables are covered with the same blue-checkered cloths. Unfortunately, the flowers in the small vase standing on my windowside table are dead.
The menu is expanded at this new branch of the Seafood Market and Restaurant. Here, you can order nonseafood items like Cobb salad, chicken teriyaki and cheeseburgers, or fancy items like clams casino and oysters Rockefeller. Steamed vegetables are offered as an option to pasta salad. Unfortunately, on the day we visit, the vegetable is zucchini and it is "COA"--Cold on Arrival. There's even dessert: carrot cake, cheesecake, chocolate cake and ice cream.
The only reason to come here is the seafood. The best part of our meal is the fish itself. I love both the succulent ahi tuna and the tender, flaky red mountain trout, a delicate cross between salmon and trout. The shrimp cocktail seems a bit expensive for five large shrimp, but I'm just crazy about Dana Centrella's cocktail sauce--it's fantastic.
Obviously, the major difference between cooking food to order as a side business and running a real restaurant is service. This is the area where the new Seafood Market must make its biggest efforts to improve.
Granted, our waiter is brand-new, but why is he on the floor alone if he doesn't know what he's doing? That's not his fault, it's the management's. Tentative to the point of fearful, he describes greaseless Cajun fries as "being like at Arby's," forgets part of our order and, after bringing our entrees, doesn't return to check on us. The final faux pas occurs when he slaps our bill on the table before asking if we'd like coffee or dessert. (We don't, but he should have offered.)
His attire doesn't help matters. Yeah, we're in the desert, but shorts just don't cut it. Want a casual look? Have the guys wear khaki Dockers.
Finally, what's wrong with the hostess? She seems worried, preoccupied and just a little grouchy. C'mon, lighten up, put on a happy face. Or better yet, hire someone with restaurant-management experience to take over the job for her, someone who can train waiters and supervise the dining room.
I love the original Seafood Market. But some of the formula that makes it so special is missing at the more ambitious Mesa enterprise.
When I walk into What a Catch Seafood in north Scottsdale, I have a strong sense of deja vu. There are the brightly lighted cases of fresh fish on ice. There are the tanks of live lobsters and Dungeness crabs, and the racks of seasonings and spices for sale. A fellow behind the counter asks if he can help me.
"We want to order lunch," I say. He points to the day's specials on the board, then leaves to help some retail customers while my accomplice and I debate our choices. We order, then sit at a white plastic table by the window next to a display of drum-sized cans of Charles Chips. "I love those," I confess to my accomplice. "When my sister was in high school, they delivered them to our house every week." "Yeah?" he says.
From speakers positioned above the lobster tanks come the sounds of breaking surf. Vintage Van Halen pours from the kitchen. Diver Down! We wonder if the seaside roar is to comfort the lobsters or the humans. I find the surf sounds rejuvenating. But then, I'm not going to be cooked up as somebody's supper.
Like the Seafood Market, What a Catch uses a hot-air oven to cook its fish. My swordfish arrives in two thin fillets rather than the thick steak I'd expected, but it's tasty and succulent. On the other hand, my accomplice's lobster-shrimp-salad sandwich is disappointing for its use of bay shrimp and lack of compelling flavor.
Fresh tuna salad is also not what I anticipate. With its mashed texture, it looks like a scoop of chopped liver. Though the description reads "stuffed avocado," the salad sits atop slices. And for a tuna traditionalist like myself, ingredients like chopped walnuts and gherkin pickles take some getting used to--it's an odd combination.
Still, for a meal served on white disposable plates, much care has gone into the garnishes. Our plates are colored with strips of leaf lettuce, wedges of lemon, slices of kiwi, strawberry, celery and carrot. The whole thing is very pretty, but then again, this is north Scottsdale. Our more substantial go-withs include yummy Charles Chips and average cole slaw.
Like its Ahwatukee counterpart, What a Catch offers affordable fresh fish in a casual retail-deli environment. It doesn't matter that the nearest ocean is four hours by car from Phoenix. This is seafood for the people: affordable, fresh and flown in daily.
Now, how about someone opening one somewhere between 32nd Street and 64th Street from Indian School to Lincoln? The Seafood Market and Restaurant, 4747 East Elliot, #23, Ahwatukee, 496-0066. Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; noon to 6 p.m., Sunday; 1318 West Southern, #11, Mesa, 890-0435. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday; noon to 8 p.m., Sunday.
What a Catch Seafood, 13842 North Scottsdale Road, #5, Scottsdale, 998-7797. Hours: 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Sunday.
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I'd weather a few sand dunes for fish this tender and honest.
The Seafood Market is one of the few places where you have nothing to lose by trying something new.
for what a catch
This is seafood for the people: affordable, fresh and flown in daily.