THE MIDDLE--AGED MAN AND THE SEA
Famous Pacific Fish Company, 4321 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 941-0602. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 10 p.m.
"Mais, non," cried my Parisian friend, Yann, when I sketched out our vacation eating plans. "Don't even think of eating bouillabaisse in Nice." Like most Frenchmen, he's a food enthusiast, and a stickler for dining on strictly local products. He patiently explained to me that the Marseille fish stew, like any French regional dish, does not travel well. When in Rome, Yann believes, eat Romans. But Nice is no further from Marseille than Sedona from Phoenix, I tried to argue, and they both border the same sea swimming with the same fish. He looked at me as if I'd just announced a fondness for escargots with ketchup on a bun, and gave up with a shrug. I shudder to think what Yann will make of my most recent gastronomic expedition: trolling the Valley for fresh fish. After all, scientists estimate it's been millions of years BTS (before tartar sauce) since ocean-based seafood last roamed these parts as a local protein source. We put into port at the Famous Pacific Fish Company. Inside it's a huge, airy, brick-walled warehouse, housing everything connected with aquatic life except a poster of Esther Williams. Ropes, nets, flags, trophy fish and even a rowboat hang from the walls and ceiling.
Outside is a pleasant patio, where customers can gaze at occasional pedestrians and cars whizzing past the deserted Galleria.
Shrimp cha cha cha got us started. Barely. (What corporate nincompoop dreamed this dopey name up? No self-respecting chef would.) The menu promised jumbo shrimp stuffed with crab in a jalapeo hollandaise. Instead, four medium shrimp drowned in bland, yellow gunk hid out under a bunch of lettuce. Moreover, the crab failed to turn up--out of embarrassment, no doubt.
Meals come with soup or an intriguing house coleslaw. Crunchy fresh cabbage is studded with tasty peanut chunks. Unfortunately, it's also just drenched with mayonnaise, enough to give nearby diners secondhand arteriosclerosis.
The soups--creamy New England clam chowder and a tomato seafood chowder--are indifferent broths, the seafood chowder in particular lacking the zip I expected from the advertised "lively spicy taste." Both soups rely more on celery and potato than bivalves and fish. And on two separate occasions, they unappealingly arrived at room temperature.
Undaunted, we still hoped the sight of good fresh fish would dull our memory of the disappointing appetizer and lukewarm soup. And Famous Pacific provides a huge range to choose from, flown in six days a week from points ranging from Alaska to Mexico, Nova Scotia to the Kiwi Islands.
Decent-size portions of first-rate fish come sizzling from the mesquite grill dominating the center of the dining room. But the cooks haven't consistently mastered the difficult technique of timing.
A thick slab of Hawaiian ahi tuna, lightly cooked around the edges, came sashimi raw inside. If Joan of Arc had been grilled this way, she wouldn't have needed much more than a jar of Noxzema to soothe her burns. Luscious, flaky sea bass, on the other hand, spent a few seconds too long on the grill, not enough to cause significant damage but just enough to make me bemoan what might have been.
And the perfectly prepared orange roughy heightened my lament. Why hadn't the other fish dishes been able to match it? A bit crispy outside, gorgeously translucent within, this gloriously moist creature demonstrated why desert dwellers, despite high prices and uneven quality, persist in going to seafood restaurants. But why does every platter contain a dreadful little bowl of tartar sauce? This mayonnaissy glop makes as much sense on fresh-grilled fish as a pair of socks. By serving it, Famous Pacific seems to contradict the whole premise on which the restaurant is based. Why should diners seek out expensive, delicately flavored fresh fish if in the end a ladleful of tartar sauce makes it undistinguishable from a Mrs. Paul's fillet? Mistrust of customers' tastes also spills over into the best side dish here, twice-baked potato. It's quite addicting--thick, lumpy, pepper-tinged mashed potatoes scooped back into a good-size potato skin. But someone decided patrons might think this too plain, so the kitchen added a layer of absolutely useless, tasteless, melted yellow sludge that only a government bureaucrat could call cheese.
The potato's not broke; there's no need to fix it.
Main dishes also come with lightly buttered mixed vegetables, nicely steamed, and small loaves of warm, serviceable bread.
Desserts are not homemade, but the one we sampled indicated that Famous Pacific has found a very reliable supplier. Snickers Bar cheesecake furnished a rich, unhealthy finish to the meal. Too bad the accompanying pot of tepid coffee seemed to be heated by the same person who regulated the temperature of the soup.
Mill Landing, 398 South Mill, Tempe, 966-1700. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.
Unlike Famous Pacific, very little at Mill Landing suggests its nautical fare. There's not a net, rope or anchor in sight. Only a couple of low-key pictures of shells and fish suggest that this is mostly a seafood establishment.
In fact, the place has a bit of an updated fern-bar look, from its brick walls and green plants in clay pots to its swirling ceiling fans and huge, exposed ducts. And from the patio, diners can watch denizens of downtown Tempe swarm from the nearby parking garage over to Mill Avenue.
We looked suspiciously at the potato skins and chicken wings on the appetizer list, and then over toward the entrees. When seafood restaurants offer as many landlubber dishes as Mill Landing does--steak, chicken, pasta--I start to worry a bit about their commitment to fish. Sure, I understand that they're trying to offer something to please everybody. But I'm not sure I want the cook working on Cajun-style blackened strip-loin steak while my fish is grilling. You simply can't please everyone--why try? (In contrast, Famous Pacific offers one steak plate and one chicken dish.) Cajun shrimp sounded like the tastiest appetizer option. Six chewy shrimp arrived in a very peppery sauce, strangely escorted by strips of celery and carrots that looked as if they had wandered off a platter of hors d'oeuvres.
Happily, a terrific loaf of thick sourdough bread made mopping up the sauce less a function of hunger than an exercise in enthusiasm.
As at Famous Pacific, meals come with soup or salad. The chowder is full-flavored, but not with the briny taste of clams. It's just as well--the clams were rubbery. Instead, the predominant flavor is bacon, pleasant enough, though not the taste I was angling for. The dinner salad is entirely nondescript, a heap of greens and sprouts swimming in a house dressing that should be sent to its room. Searching for greens, I tried the caesar salad, an extraordinarily garlicky concoction unaccountably burdened with a zillion unwelcome olives. No hailing this caesar.
The fresh-fish main courses--all generous-size hunks--didn't have the uneven quality of preparation we found at Famous Pacific. Unfortunately, though, they didn't go past the range of nothing special.
Most disappointing, because of our heightened expectations, was salmon Tuscany. Mill Landing calls its salmon dishes "Signature Entrees." Salmon Tuscany boasted broiled salmon topped with a feta-cheese sauce, spinach, mushrooms and cream, and champagne flamb. My mental picture of this dish, though, had no correspondence with reality.
No problem with the salmon itself, but diligent excavation unearthed not a trace of spinach. And many minutes of single-minded tasting revealed not a hint of feta or a soupon of champagne.
It seemed to be nothing more than a piece of salmon covered with lots of uninteresting mushrooms.
Also fresh this day was dark-fleshed ahi tuna, a large, thin slice broiled in garlic butter. Thin slices of fish can be easily overcooked, and Mill Landing was not quite up to meeting the challenge.
Best of the lot was Alaskan halibut coated with a mild teriyaki butter. But it, too, had spent just a bit too much time under the broiler, the flames drying up its meaty moistness.
All dishes arrived with a small portion of wonderful, roasted red potatoes, cunningly cut into the shape of mushrooms, and barely cooked mixed vegetables. And as far as I could tell, the jaw-breaking broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and zucchini also came completely untouched by any herb or seasoning agent susceptible to human powers of discovery.
Desserts are made elsewhere. As with the salmon, we fell prey to the mental picture conjured up by the waiter's description of the white-chocolate Grand Marnier truffle. Instead of the exotic confection I was dreamily digesting, it resembled the candy-coated creamsicle that I used to buy from the Good Humor ice cream man when I was a kid. And with about the same amount of Grand Marnier. Pondering the expensive mediocrity of Mill Landing's fare--nothing horribly awful, we agreed, but nothing to rouse us out of our seats--we decided to sit a while over espresso. Big mistake. The espresso is genuinely awful.
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