Cafe Reviews

Fisherman's Boos

A humongous Pop-Tart. That's what this marionberry cobbler -- named for a type of blackberry, not the erstwhile mayor of D.C. -- reminds me of, from its gooey, purplish guts, to its crust, which, like Kellogg's toaster pastry, turns soft after a little time in the microwave. As with the Pop-Tart, the first bite encourages others, but by the third nosh, you know you'll regret what you've done. You leave the table feeling icky inside and out. Like when you down one too many Krispy Kreme doughnuts, or eat a whole box of peanut brittle by your lonesome.

The marionberry cobbler was but one of three desserts I had on separate occasions at McGrath's Fish House in Scottsdale, part of a piscatory-themed, Oregon-based chain with a trio of locations in the Valley. The Key lime pie was the least revolting, edible after the meringue was pushed off with a fork, if not memorable in any way. The most gag-inducing was the bread pudding, which seemed to have been crafted from the kind of sourdough bread that accompanies your meal, a loaf that hardens to tooth-defying consistency minutes after it's presented to you. Converted into "bread pudding," it becomes a sticky, Cinnabon-ish monstrosity slathered with hazelnutty syrup, and topped with French vanilla ice cream. If you don't feel like purging yourself following the ingestion of any part of this chewy, cloying mound, you never will.

Beginning at the meal's end may not seem appropriate when detailing dinners taken at a fish purveyor, but it doesn't really matter where I begin with McGrath's. Most of the food served here, whether from sea or land, has that stultifying sameness in which almost all feeders of the masses deal, from Burger King to the infamous Cheesecake Factory, and on to McGrath's, which, from my experience, I can only conclude is a half-step to a step above your average Red Lobster in quality.

What is this odd, prefabricated taste so widespread in the food of our day and age? It is the taste of convenience and uniformity. You can also find it right next to McGrath's, in this very same shopping complex, in the guise of the White Chocolate Grill, where legions of fressers with insensate palates flock so that they might inhale the most mediocre of munchables. If you'll pardon a literary analogy, the parking lot they share reminds me of the law of contrapasso, which rules all nine circles of Dante's Inferno. Loosely translated, contrapasso indicates that the punishment fits the sin. And somehow it would be fitting for this persnickety critic to find himself condemned for all eternity to the lot between the White Chocolate Grill and McGrath's, forced to choose between two absolutely loathsome chow palaces.

Didn't I know better? Didn't McGrath's barnlike exterior, which looks like it was assembled from a massive Lincoln Logs set, tip me off to the pedestrian eats within? Yeah, I reckon. But then, our warm, pre-summer weather has had me hankerin' after the fruits of the sea, and peckish for Piscean platters, I figured McGrath's was worth a shot. I mean, if I could get away with reviewing Eddie V's Edgewater Grille at DC Ranch every week -- one place in town with some really superb seafood -- believe me, I would. Naysayers can do me a favor and hold their tongues when it comes to talk of "price points," the lame-o excuse that's always trotted out whenever I set my aim on chain fare. Eddie V's, with three locations nationwide as opposed to McGrath's 19 or so, offers far better quality for only a few dollars more per item.

McGrath's is hardly cheap. Most of the entrees from McGrath's "fresh sheet" of daily specials run from $16.99 to $19.99, but flavor rarely matches the dollar here. Take the Acapulco marlin, a sort of seafood steak, with the meat of this marlin being especially dry and unappetizing. An avocado-bay shrimp salsa atop it helps hide this, but not enough to make mastication pleasurable. What about mahi-mahi served atop pasta, with inexpensive, pitted black olives -- the kind that probably come in colossal Navy-size tins? I've had superior mahi-mahi at fast-food joints, for cryin' out loud. This mahi-mahi was nearly as dry as the marlin, without the salsa to conceal the fact.

Occasionally, McGrath's is on target, though not enough times to recommend it in any way. There wasn't much to the wild sesame salmon, but the salmon itself had been prepared properly, and was moist and flavorful without being too "fishy." I also found the pan-fried oysters admirable, yet at a dollar-plus per oyster, they needed to be: You get six for $6.99. All the same, they were fat, juicy and not overdone, an appetizer keeper. The crab cakes were passable and had a nice crab taste to them, but were especially bland and in need of some spice.

The heavily breaded popcorn shrimp were very, very Red Lobsterish, almost Long John Silverish. A waste of time. A half-pound of chilled prawns? Adequate, as were the fried calamari, a dish that is notoriously difficult to muck up. Why McGrath's is incapable of producing a classic shrimp cocktail is beyond me. Its "seafood cocktail" is a grotesque mix of shredded crab and bay shrimp stirred into ketchupy sauce, with three lonely prawns seated on the lip of the glass. You couldn't pay me to finish this gunk.

The hazelnut sole really pissed me off, though it was one of the less expensive main courses at $11.99 a pop. You're served two large fillets, each completely covered in a nearly inedible hazelnut coating, the top one smothered in a lemon velouté. Here's a message for Papa McGrath, wherever he may be: This is sole worthy of everlasting damnation! Sole does not need to be mistreated in this manner. You can't even enjoy the fish because of the hazelnutty layer in which McGrath's cooks have entrapped the poor fin-bearer. If Aquaman were still around, he'd hunt down the author of this travesty and feed the criminal to his pet orca Shamu!

Okay, I went a little overboard there. Aquaman didn't have a pet orca, as far as I know. But surely that dweller of the depths would wreak vengeance on McGrath's Fish House, eh? Someone needs to, if only for the poor meals I encountered there. Perhaps this review will suffice until the Super Friends can spare the King of the Sea for a uniquely unsavory mission.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons