There has never been a better time to be a seafood lover in Phoenix than the present. From East Coast-style fish houses to fancy oyster bars, a new wave of fish-obsessed Valley restaurants is helping make top-quality seafood as easy to find in Phoenix as your neighborhood Starbucks. Well, almost.
The seafood trend certainly hasn't escaped Aaron May, the Valley chef and restaurateur whose local food empire includes six locations of his popular breakfast concept, Over Easy, and The Lodge, a playful Sasquatch-themed kitchen and bar in Tempe. Earlier this year, May unveiled his first seafood restaurant, a breezy spot in Arcadia with an old-money moniker, The Yacht Club.
Located in the space formerly occupied by the old-school Italian eatery La Fontanella, the restaurant underwent an extreme makeover. Tuscan-inspired design flourishes have been replaced with a nautical theme, complete with a whitewashed exterior and porthole windows. Inside, the dining room is flush with enough Atlantic-inspired coastal flair to fill a Cape Cod beach rental. From the light gray driftwood flooring to the salvaged wooden oars pinned to the walls, the design is distinct and chic, but also borders on heavy-handed — the kind of space that provokes diners to say things like "Ahoy, matey" (as I overheard on one visit). Matters of design aside, it's the restaurant's unfocused menu, along with some clumsy execution in the kitchen, that makes The Yacht Club tough to love.
The appetizer menu, replete with classic seafood grub like calamari, crab cake, and fried clam strips, looked promising enough on a recent visit. The calamari was coated in a chickpea flour, deep-fried to a nice, clean crisp, and then brightened up with the house lemon aioli. Light, crunchy, and mildly fishy, the fried squid snack was good but also unremarkable.
The Arizona clam chowder, a Southwestern spin on the classic New England dish, was more disappointing. The thin soup, made with sweet corn, chorizo, and poblano chiles, was redolent with sweet corn and subtle hints of pepper. But it lacked any real bite or zest, and it was missing the thick, nourishing comfort food sensibility of the original. It was served in a flat, shallow bowl, the modest serving size closer to a light party dip than a hearty bowl of chowder.
A more satisfying starter was the Sol y Sombra chicken, a holdover from May's now-shuttered tapas restaurant of the same name. The slow-cooked chicken, fall-apart tender and moist, was glazed in a lightly sweet and tangy sauce and garnished with pickled red onion. The dish delivered the kind of assertive, bold flavors missing from the other appetizers.
The entrée menu, which has gone through a handful of iterations over the past few months, is a curiously mixed bag of high and low options. You'll find everything from fine-dining seafood platters to dressed-up burgers to breaded fish tacos.
One of the priciest plates is the halibut and brown rice salad, which showcases the kitchen's talent for preparing high-end fish. On a recent visit, the slab of buttery halibut, rich and falling apart into tender flakes, was burnished with a deliciously crispy skin. But it was served on a bed of soggy brown rice, studded with blistered tomatoes and crunchy bites of English cucumber. A thin lemon herb sauce puddled at the edges of the dish, bright but a hair too acidic. If not for the beautifully cooked halibut, the light dish quickly would've faded from memory.
Linguine with clams also was disappointing. The tangle of pasta, swimming in a light garlic and butter sauce, was underseasoned and bland. Manila clams were a small saving grace, fresh, plump and slightly nutty. But they were not enough to save the dish.
Chicken and shrimp jambalaya livened things up on one visit. The zesty surf-and-turf plate was a rich, smoky jumble of browned chicken sausage, juicy jumbo shrimp, and peppery dirty rice. The Cajun trinity of green peppers, onion, and celery, sautéed until they practically melted into the rice, added flavor and depth to the dish.
You may not go to The Yacht Club expressly to eat tacos, but if you do, you'll find the kitchen's take on classic Baja fish tacos. There are three tacos to an order, each small flour tortilla crammed with deep-fried mahi-mahi, then overstuffed with shredded cabbage and pico. Tacos are finished off with a heavy chipotle cream. A light drizzle would be more than sufficient, but on a recent visit, my tacos were overdressed to the point of smothering every element. The fish, soggy and indistinct, was lost in every bite.
Fish and chips, classic seafood grub if there ever was any, left little impression beyond the faint oil stains on the plate. On a recent visit, the fish — the type varies depending on the season — was halibut coated in a bland, mealy batter. A squirt of malted vinegar added a much-needed jolt of flavor. The fish was served with a cabbage slaw, which like the tacos, was overdressed to the point of turning drippy. On the side, steak fries were airy and crunchy, but notably underseasoned.
Strangely enough, The Yacht Club fared better with classic landlubber food. The Admiral burger, for example, offers more flavor-rich indulgence per bite than many of the restaurant's lighter dishes put together. The centerpiece of the burger is its signature burger patty, imported directly from Pat LaFrieda, the New Jersey meat guru known for his artisanal cuts and burger patties. The medium-rare patty offered an impossibly rich blend of brisket, short rib, and chuck meat. A layer of a cheesy pimento blend was pasted onto the toasted bun, along with crispy shallots designed to add a nice, subtle crunch to every bite. The Admiral is overindulgence incarnate, and one of the most consistently delicious things on the menu.
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You won't find any mention of dessert on the menu at The Yacht Club, but if you ask, the kitchen will send over what appears to be the house specialty: a deconstructed key lime pie. At the tail-end of a recent dinner, the custard dessert, served in a wide-mouth glass mason jar, was a mélange of sweet and tart, creamy and crunchy. It came with a graham cracker for scooping up the thick, velvety cream. The dessert, tasty but mostly forgettable, is a fitting end to dinner at The Yacht Club. Like much of what you'll find on the menu, you probably won't be craving more.
The Yacht Club
4231 East Indian School Road
Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Arizona clam chowder $10
Halibut & brown rice salad $28
Shrimp tacos $14
Linguine with clams $21