I remember with remarkable clarity the first time I realized that fish wasn't just something you ate breaded, deep-fried and dipped in tartar sauce.
Oh, I'd seen real seafood, and I was suspicious. That stuff that grown-ups ate was weird, flat and slimy, and it smelled like old sweat. The timid bites I'd tried of fish for adults were dry, rubbery and infused with a fetid anchovy aroma.
I hate to say it, but I still clung to this opinion as I entered adulthood. Then, at 18, I had a piscatorial epiphany on a trip to Rocky Point in Mexico, courtesy of a friend named Rick.
I helped my companion scour the rough little grocery store in the seaside town, but I warned him that I was dubious about his plans to prepare for us a dish of red snapper Veracruz style.
But Rick swore this would be different from the fish I'd tried in the past. Shopping for the snapper hadn't encouraged me any, however. As we strolled along the Mexican malecón, fishmongers had yelled at us from their tiny concrete stalls, waving raw, floppy fillets in our faces. Whole animals sprawled bug-eyed on mounds of ice, their mouths gaping in indignation as, at tables behind them, bloody-smocked butchers whacked their brothers into bits with giant cleavers. Rick chose his catch carefully, sniffing each piece, pressing firm-textured meat between his fingers and studying the whole creatures' dead red eyes for, as he told me, "intelligence."
I wouldn't help him wash the fish when we returned to our beach house. I did chop an onion, dice some mild green chiles and tomatoes, mince fresh cilantro and garlic. But I let him heat the olive oil, sauté the vegetables (mashing the tomatoes with a fork to release their juices), then place the salted and peppered fillets over the mix to simmer.
And I sampled his supper out of pure politeness, figuring that I could make a meal of the fluffy buttered rice, warm flour tortillas, fresh steamed green beans and garden salad served alongside. It was no big concern if I didn't like the entree -- I recall two pounds of fish set Rick back a total of maybe four bucks.
In the end, though, I devoured almost a pound of that red snapper. Rick blushed at my awe, explaining that the difference was that this fish was fresh plucked from waters in the Gulf of California just that morning. And from that day on, fresh-caught fish has become my favorite luxury, to be savored as sushi, steaks, soup or salad, and prepared seared, steamed, sautéed or sauced. I love it fancy (salmon poached with truffles and shrimp in caviar cream) or unadorned (swordfish brushed with olive oil and grilled). So let it be known I'm a diehard, well-traveled fine fish fan.
As much as I adore fantastic, fresh fish, however, I can't work up the excitement to embrace Ocean Club, the Valley's newest seafood emporium at Kierland Commons in Scottsdale. I'm surprised, because I was sure I'd love the place, which aims to do for seafood what Ruth's Chris has done for steaks. Seafood here is just hours removed from oceans around the world. The setting is stylish, with white-jacketed, black-bow-tied servers and a king's ransom of heavy silver flatware. The architecture is stunning, with massive hand-wrought iron chandeliers, fossilized limestone walls, backlit portals and rich wooden panels with glass mosaic details. There's a delicious bar, with many fine young chicks hanging on the arms of old guys with too much money.
Except that, ultimately, this fish isn't worth all the fuss. All Ocean's really done is bring the à la carte entree concept to salmon and sole, and with it, flabbergasting price tags of $17.95 to $29.95. That's for a plate of just fish. No salad, no side dish, nothing but fillet and a wedge of lemon. An outstanding breadbasket is free, but egad, tack on $7.95 for creamed corn or potatoes au gratin, $6.95 for steamed broccoli, $6.95 for a caesar salad, or $8.95 for a bowl of bisque.
To be clear: Much of the seafood at Ocean is first-rate. A meal delivers the upscale experience I expect from its owners, the Mastro Group (Mastro's and Drinkwater's City Hall Steakhouse). Yet there are many, many other places around town to get fish just as good for a whole lot less cash. I can never shake the nagging resentment of paying 30 bucks for naked ahi that, if I hadn't read Ocean's marketing materials, I wouldn't have thought was much different from the tuna served at, say, south Scottsdale's Salt Cellar (where a topnotch mesquite-charcoal-broiled fish steak comes with dinner salad, seasonal vegetables, lemon pecan rice or baked potato and hot bread for $21.95).
We're paying for gimmick, and I can't help feeling management thinks we're stupid. Ocean Club's hook, so to speak, is that it's certified U.S.D.C. (United States Department of Commerce). The status is printed in large, officious letters on the menu. Yet big whoop all commercial fish is required to be U.S.D.C.-inspected, including the cod and pollock in Burger King's Big Fish sandwich.
At Ocean, we also get a tedious spiel about how the fish gets to the restaurant: It's caught, wrapped, put in plastic-lined boxes, covered in ice, unwrapped, inspected, cleaned, cut, rewrapped in butcher paper, replaced in plastic-lined boxes, re-iced, flown in a cargo plane or driven by truck from downtown L.A. to its final resting place at Ocean. Then it's portioned in the restaurant's very own 32- to 40-degree cutting room, before chef Siegfried Hohaus deems it worthy of landing on our table. Well, whew I'm exhausted even before I pick up my designer-label silver fork.
Like Ruth's Chris, Ocean goes for the shock factor to warrant its sky-high prices. Portions are huge 12 to 14 ounces for fish, one-pound baked potatoes, appetizers and sides usually enough for two (my sister Elisabeth points out that the tumbleweed of sea salt and vinegar fries is a centerpiece, not a side dish). There are things I appreciate, like that simple preparation is designed to showcase the premium ingredients. Fish is presented in one of three ways: seasoned and braised in wine and butter; oreganata (rolled in breadcrumbs, herbs, garlic, Parmesan, wine and butter, then baked); or grilled with olive oil.
The restaurant flies in eight varieties of fish daily, including Chilean sea bass, mahi-mahi, swordfish, turbot, petrale sole, Atlantic salmon and blue nose grouper. They're all quite nice. At these prices, though, I'd only make a special trip for just two types the excellent sole (flounder, actually), with its mild flavor, fine texture and a curious presentation curled up like a cinnamon roll; or the grouper, firm, meaty and delightfully moist. I request my grouper porcini style, and it's decadent, rolled in dried Italian mushrooms, drizzled with clarified butter and baked.
But I'm not drooling over Ocean's ahi, the star of the restaurant's advertising, which brags that the bone-in fish chop is served at no other restaurant in America. Amazing, but true: A yellowfin tuna, even one topping 250 pounds, renders just one bone-in loin. The bone supposedly imparts deep flavor, much like the marrow in a steak bone. But my fish arrives sashimi-style, rolled in Asian seasoning and black sesame seeds, barely seared, sliced and served cold over julienne daikon radish, red onion and sugar snap peas under a ginger soy sauce. The bone sits off to the side, and with barely any cooking of the fish involved, what's the point?
Another specialty, one night's offering of mako shark, is flat-out disappointing, and really irritating at $20.95. It's a tough, bland wad, and brought back to my mind those memories of hating grown-up seafood.
The real insult comes in the extras. With all the management types loitering around the restaurant (looking like Secret Service in their suits and ear-radios), it seems someone could protect me from the awful appetizers and side dishes that come my way. Mashed potatoes are dry as Styrofoam, thick like scooped-out baked potato. Au gratin potatoes are drenched in slippery oil. Dungeness crab dip may arrive in an expensive All-Clad silver skillet, but it reminds everyone at my table of tuna casserole. It's parched, not helped by scooping with stale toast rounds, and tastes nothing of crab, just celery and Parmesan. Someone in the kitchen went into conniptions with the salt shaker for the Boston clam chowder, and the meager sprinkle of lobster in the bisque can't compensate for the cloying cream tones. The only worthwhile distraction, in fact, is a superb platter of fried red tomatoes, lightly breaded and wonderfully wet inside.
Elisabeth, bless her imagination, knows just how to describe what she's found in a finale of peach polenta cake: slugs. It's an apt metaphor for the careless display of the cold fruit slabs over plastic-textured crust. It's also a perfect example of what Ocean's management thinks of us spoiled Scottsdalites who think that by looking pretty, and charging outrageous prices, we'll believe we're getting the best.
I adore my fresh fish. Ocean has some of it. But give me my friendly $4 snapper, instead of a silly $29.95 ahi fillet, any day.
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