Dana Centrella is a fish fanatic. This Delaware native is a man with a mission: to educate and inform Phoenicians about fish. Specifically, he wants us to know that fish does not have to taste "fishy." Neither does it have to be expensive. And you don't need fancy sauces to enhance the flavor. If it's been caught correctly, not mishandled, and shipped quickly, it will taste good naturally. For the last five years, Centrella's teaching laboratory has been the Seafood Market and Restaurant in Ahwatukee. This clean little retail fish store prides itself on selling only fish that is fresh, never frozen. It also boasts casual restaurant service for those of us who don't want to cook fish ourselves.
For substantially less than you'd pay elsewhere, you can enjoy Centrella's fresh fish, live lobsters, crabs and other assorted shellfish, cooked to order. The shellfish is steamed or broiled. The fish is prepared fat-free in a Rair hot-air oven. The science of this modern convenience is beyond me; suffice it to say this microwave-sized device cooks at 500 degrees Fahrenheit with "winds" up to forty miles per hour. Kind of like the Sahara, huh?
The results are wonderful. I'd weather a few sand dunes for fish this tender and honest. Eating under Centrella's tutelage is like learning a whole new vocabulary, fin by fin. "Ah, so this is marlin," you say to yourself. "I like it." You begin to feel adventurous. "Next time," you think, "I'll try the Chilean sea bass or the thresher shark."
Such bravery is easily mustered because this is one of the few places where you have nothing to lose by trying something new. At most restaurants, seafood is expensive, you can't be sure of the quality and you may not like the way it's prepared. Result? You stick with the same old same old.
But at the Seafood Market, you're assured of fresh, top-quality fish prepared consistently time after time. Sure, you might spend as much as $10.95 for ahi tuna, but you're paying for the fish itself, not for some sauce made of capers or white chocolate or almonds that you may not like. And, as Professor Centrella himself might say: All the fish he sells is good, it's just all different. Neptune has no favorites. At the original Seafood Market and Restaurant in Ahwatukee, glass cases display the day's fresh catch, laid out like colors of the oceanic rainbow. There are bubbling tanks strewn with kelp in which live lobsters and Dungeness crabs lurk. There are cases of clams, oysters and shrimp from Mexico and Taiwan. There are also endorsements and autographs, penned on the white walls with red and blue felt-tip markers, from business people, visitors, sports stars and regular folk.
On the day a seafood-loving dining accomplice and I visit for lunch, we sit on high stools at a table covered with a blue-and-white checkered cloth. I like the atmosphere. I feel at home here. I like looking at the filleted fish and live lobsters. Not that I'm paranoid, but it makes me feel secure. You point to something, they cook it up. Service is casual, but well-meaning and informed.
We start with delicious, chunky clam chowder. Unlike so many other bad chowders I've suffered through, this one is not gloppy. We follow up with steamed clams, marlin in barbecue sauce, and sea scallops. The fish and seafood are delectable, with the texture God gave them intact. The sweet steamers are especially fine. They come with hot water and melted butter for a traditional one-two dip.
If I have one complaint about eating at the Seafood Market, it's that the meal gets a little starchy once the go-withs are piled on. Each entree is served with sourdough bread, greaseless fries and pasta salad. While the pasta salad has a nice flavor, thanks to a substantial amount of dill, it's nothing fantastic: overcooked tricolored rotini tossed with inconsequential bay shrimp and imitation crab. I know price is an issue, but I want more from a store so fanatical about quality. I want real shrimp and real crab. Outside of these small complaints, I have nothing but rave reviews for this little shop.
But the story doesn't end here. At the end of May, Dana Centrella and his wife Gwenn opened a second, restaurant-only location on Southern Avenue in Mesa. My dining accomplice and I stop in for a late lunch on a Saturday, a few weeks after its opening.
The new restaurant reminds me of an old-time pizza parlor. Cozy vinyl booths line the windows and, from the ceiling, fake Tiffany lamps alternate with silk hanging planters. The walls are covered with cedar, except for one shiny white wall left for signatures. Tables are covered with the same blue-checkered cloths. Unfortunately, the flowers in the small vase standing on my windowside table are dead.