When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out — and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).
Restaurant: The Yacht Club Location: 4231 Indian School Road, Phoenix Open: About a week Eats: Seafood Price: $20+ per person
Seafood is having a moment right now in Phoenix. Maybe it's because we desert inhabitants need to taste the saltiness of the ocean every now and then — if only in oyster form — or maybe it's because we're finally revolting at being known for as long as "steak and potatoes" kind of town. Either way, there's been a serious influx of East Coast-inspired seafood restaurants cropping up in, of all places, Phoenix.
The myth that it's impossible to get good seafood in our dry and landlocked state has been false for years, and to prove that you really don't have to look very hard. There are several places in town that serve fresh, and well-prepared seafood.
Unfortunately, right now, chef Aaron May's Yacht Club isn't one of them.
Local diners should be familiar with May's work. He's opened some long-lasting dining spots (namely, the breakfast restaurant Over Easy and the recently shuttered The Lodge), as well as some that have opened and closed in what feels like the blink of an eye. This latest restaurant took over the space that once housed La Fontanella on Indian School Road, bringing East Coast preppy sensibility and lots of seafood to the heart of the Arcadia neighborhood.
Dinner service during the restaurant's first week was chaotic at best and nerve-wracking at worst.
The restaurant's design is partially to blame. The small entryway spills directly into a tiny hostess table and then the bar, which causes a bottleneck of diners if the hostess isn't actually there to greet people immediately. Plus, with servers rushing back and forth between the two halves of the dining room (the bar is in the middle), diners basically enter the restaurant and step directly into a major thoroughfare.
On the upside, the restaurant booths, which are designed to feel like cruise ship seating, feel cozy. It's particularly good because you'll need to get up close with your companions in order to hear anything they say. Thanks to a room covered in entirely hard surfaces — light grayish wood flooring, and white wood paneled walls and ceilings — the dining room at the Yacht Club sounds more like a raucous bar than a tranquil beachside getaway.
If your server is as frantic as ours was earlier this week, you won't be asked if you'd like anything to drink before he scurries over to say, "Have you had a chance to look over the menu yet?" And when you order wine, be sure to enunciate (and maybe yell a little bit) because otherwise you'll end up having to repeat yourself several times before finally just pointing directly to your selection on the list.
At first glance, the menu looks like a standard rundown of seafood restaurant dishes such as shrimp ceviche, oysters rockeller, and clam chowder. Look a little closer and you'll notice many dishes have a modern or Southwestern twist — for example, there's chorizo and poblano peppers in chowder and chickpea and rye batter on the calamari.
When it comes to the appetizers, the Lobster Rolls Two Ways ($17) make themselves hard to resist — in part because the dish is highlighted on the menu. The starter comes with four miniature lobster rolls, two done "Connecticut style" with butter and tarragon, and two done "NE style" with creamy aioli.
Both versions suffer from the main problem that affects all slider-style sandwiches: a disproportionate ratio of bread to meat. That fundamental issue aside, the toasted sweet buns were buttered and perfectly crisp.
It was hard to pick a favorite between the two styles of roll, mainly because neither version's flavor stood out very much. The biggest difference between the two came down to texture; the NE-style rolls were definitely creamier than the simpler butter-based version.
That underwhelming appetizer still fared better than the Charred Octopus with Smoked Paprika and Beans ($9). The two large tentacles of octopus were tender, but not charred, which leaves the octopus' gelatinous skin intact. It's not a problem per se, but when you're expecting a crisp exterior that gives way to chewy meat, the soft exterior is a bit disappointing.
On our visit the octopus was also extremely salty. Luckily the white bean, onion, red pepper, and paprika salad made a suitable foil, blending tart pieces of marinated onion with creamy, large white beans.
For an entrée we went with a seafood restaurant stand-by and ordered up the Yacht Club's Fish and Chips ($18). The order includes three pieces of deep-fried halibut, though this may not the best use for this fish. The dense flesh makes for a dry and heavy bite — a far cry from the light and flaky texture you want from this dish.
The batter was also far from crisp in some spots, though the accompanying cabbage slaw and caper tartar were both quite nice. The chips were probably the best part of the dish; the thick cut fries had a thin, firm exterior that gave way to soft potatoes inside.
At the beginning of the night the hostess mentioned that the front of the house was understaffed that night, so we'll hope our frantic server won't always be running around with such an anxious air. But honestly, even if there had been excellent service, the food just didn't have us dying to come back for more. Nothing stood out, making this May's newest restaurant one that we'd be happy to sail by on our way to other dining spots.
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