Breeze from the Northwest
For months Houston foodies have been buzzing about McCormick & Schmick's. Word on the street held that it was not just a good seafood restaurant but a great one, ready to present Houston with delights rarely if ever offered here before. The chain, which began in Portland, Oregon, emphasizes the bounty of the Pacific Northwest. And as good as Gulf seafood is, aren't we all getting just a wee bit tired of fried shrimp and oysters and catfish?
Still, the cynic in me scoffed. McCormick & Schmick's is a chain restaurant, with 22 locations. How good could it possibly be?
For starters, I was relieved to see that the place doesn't look like a chain; it looks like money. The large space is bedecked with wood paneling, stained-glass ceilings and fixtures, and Texas-themed accents. White tablecloths cover the tables, some of which may be a little too close together. But despite the crowds packing those tables (and the booths), noise levels are blessedly low; instead of a roar, there's the pleasant hum of diners enjoying themselves.
When I looked at the menu, my doubts shrank a bit more. It changes daily -- always a good sign in a seafood restaurant. The top quarter is the "fresh list," the seafood du jour, stuff like Yucatan peninsula red snapper, B.C. Pearl Bay oysters, George's Bank sea scallops, Oregon Columbia River sturgeon and Lake Superior whitefish. And there's an entire menu section devoted to oysters on the half shell. Even in the dread R-less summer months you can choose from a dozen varieties.
But never mind the menu and ambience, muttered my inner cynic. How good is the seafood?
My inner cynic wants to apologize for any bad thoughts it might have had. It is, in fact, hard to know where to begin with my recommendations. If you're in the mood for a light, cool appetizer, the salmon carpaccio ($6.40) is exquisite: Flawlessly fresh, almost dewy slices of salmon are served paper-thin, with a light lemon vinaigrette, capers, and Parmesan and water crackers.
The steamed Manila clams ($9.90) hail from Puget Sound, not the Philippines. The perfectly cooked clams swim in an oceanic broth accented with garlic and fresh herbs. They're wonderful as they are, and even better when dipped in the butter you get on the side.
Ahi tuna ($9.95) of high quality is spiced and seared flawlessly, leaving it bright red inside. It plays beautifully off its accompaniment, a cool, sweet-and-vinegary cucumber salad.
I tried the blue crab cakes ($12.50) just to see what tricks the extremely talented executive chef, John Baker, would pull out of his sleeve with the Gulf Coast standard. Not much, as it turned out: The crab cakes were excellent, mind you, maybe the best in town. But even with a red-pepper mayonnaise, they didn't reach the heights of the other appetizers.
I was surprised, though, that a mere salad was able to hold its own in the lineup. The seasonal mixed greens with Gorgonzola and glazed walnuts ($6.30) included just the right amount of bitter greens, and its balsamic vinaigrette stood up nicely against the slightly salty cheese and sweet, crunchy nuts.
Alaska troll king salmon ($19.50) is roasted on a cedar plank, infusing the fish with a haunting, delicate taste of smoke. Such subtle brilliance should be met with subtle brilliance -- and it is, with a light pinot noir sauce.
But McCormick & Schmick's can also handle head-on, explosive flavor. I'm wild about their Maine monkfish ($16.80). Two large medallions are oven-roasted with a sage-and-garlic cream sauce. The rich sauce goes perfectly with the flavor and texture of the monkfish; they don't call it the poor man's lobster for nothing.
I adore the delicate flavor of Oregon petrole sole ($14.95), and it's well served here, "griddled" with a Parmesan-cheese crust and served with a gossamer-light lemon-caper-butter sauce. The nutty crust both protects the delicate flesh of the sole and brings out all of its sweetness. With the first bite, my eyes rolled back into the look of religious ecstasy usually reserved for saints in Italian Renaissance art.
We also sampled the stuffed Alaska Kodiak Island halibut ($19.95), served with hearty mashed potatoes. Its stuffing is almost -- but only almost -- standard. To the usual Dungeness crab, bay shrimp and dill, McCormick & Schmick's adds a little Brie. Surprisingly, the tang of the cheese brings the dish together, raising it above the level of the usual stuffed fish. (Of course, it would have been better if it had been served hotter, but that's a quibble.)
After eating seafood (even with a garlic cream sauce), I always feel I've been particularly abstemious, so I especially look forward to dessert. Ironically, the best dessert here was also probably the healthiest: pound cake with fresh berries ($4.95). An unusual dose of cornmeal gave the cake's outside crust an appealing crunch. I also enjoyed the berry cobbler ($4.95), served warm with ice cream. It's sweet, warm and homey.
The other two desserts I sampled didn't quite come off as planned. The crème brûlée ($5.25) had a nice caramelized crust, but what should have been a cool, creamy custard underneath was in fact hot and slightly runny (too long under the broiler?). And the chocolate brioche pudding ($4.95) was a total mistake, way too soft, like soggy, undercooked French toast.
But in the larger scheme of things, those are minor gaffes. McCormick & Schmick's is a helluva seafood restaurant -- good enough that I'm happy to welcome the chain (a chain!) to town.
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