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RESTAURANTS : GO FISH : With Its Odd Sauces and Combinations of Ingredients, This Restaurant Is All at Sea

November 06, 1994|S. Irene Virbila

Just as a name like the Chop House conjures up images of juicy steaks and chops, the Fish House calls up visions of silvery salmon, massive swordfish and tuna, homely catfish, exotic escolar, piles of shellfish. The simple, solid name conveys a sense of tradition and class, which may be why the Portland-based McCormick & Schmick chose it for the chain's new Beverly Hills seafood restaurant.

The address is Via Rodeo, an ersatz European-style hill town adjacent to Rodeo Drive. A pair of ivy topiary swordfish stands sentinel in front of the two-story restaurant. Garden tables and green-and-white rattan chairs dot the spacious cobblestoned courtyard. Directly in line with the entrance, cooks in snappy white jackets and very tall hats bend over their work in the stainless-steel kitchen. We're looking forward to a nice piece of fish.

We're seated in the courtyard, waiting for menus, for water, for wine. Our earnest and harried waiter, so overwhelmed by a few tables that we surmise it's his first night on the job, finally passes out tall menus printed with the day's date. The menu is dauntingly large, covering just about everything anyone could possibly do with seafood. Let's see, you could put it in tacos, sandwiches, salads, soups and pasta dishes. You could steam it, griddle it, pan-fry it, deep-fry it, bake it, sear it, roast it, grill it, saute it. Now we're the ones who are overwhelmed as we confront more than 100 choices. How can the kitchen possibly do all this well? The answer, as I soon find out, is that it doesn't.

My eye strays to the specialties first, but I can't persuade anyone to order "Canadian halibut oven roasted with Dungeness crab and Brie cheese." Small wonder. No takers for salmon with rhubarb chutney or swordfish with honey-yam butter either. And a definite pass on the grilled catfish sandwich with Canadian bacon and smoked Gouda.

Finally, I locate Lake Superior whitefish, pan-fried and topped with citrus beurre blanc . And since nobody else will, I order the shark tacos to start. I happen to love fish tacos, but not this one. Why bury juicy strips of shark in shredded raw cabbage and fold everything into a soft tortilla? Chipotle salsa might have been the saving grace, but it has seen better days. As the meal progresses, I begin to get the picture. The kitchen starts out with good-quality raw materials but undercuts its efforts with weird sauces and combinations of ingredients that don't work.

Sometimes, though, they can't get the simplest things right. Deep-fried calamari is rubbery; crayfish cakes have so little flavor they could be anything at all; beer-battered lingcod is heavy and greasy, the chips limp. C'mon, the cooks should be able to make great fish and chips blindfolded. Raw oysters, which should be a sure bet, don't taste pristinely fresh.

The two best dishes this night are Atlantic king salmon baked on a cedar plank--translucent at the center, a wonderful piece of fish if you ignore the raspberry sauce--and the whitefish in citrus beurre blanc . Mexican scampi sauteed in garlic butter are fine, too, but the poor petrale sole is encased in Parmesan cheese and sadly overcooked. So is the butterflied trout. Deep-fried catfish in a cornmeal batter has a strong, funky taste, but the red beans served with it are good. Mushy semi di melone (melon-seed-shaped pasta) and a green vegetable accompany almost everything else, giving plates the unappetizing look of a retro TV dinner.

Like McCormick & Schmick's in Downtown, Pasadena and Irvine, the Fish House is handsomely appointed. Here is a fortune in wood paneling and stained glass, all meticulously crafted in the Pacific Northwest. Booths are luxuriously ample, decorated with black-and-white photos of Beverly Hills in the '20s and '30s. Even half-filled, the room has the uninhabited feel of a hotel banquet room. There is life in the bar, where two TVs blare as happy hour winds to a close.

On another visit, I decide on a new strategy: ordering the plainest things. Clam chowder is from the wallpaper-paste school, thick enough to actually hold your spoon upright but short on chewy clams. Prawn cocktail features a nice rendition of classic horseradish-spiked cocktail sauce, but the prawns are tired. A bowl of dainty steamed Prince Edward Island mussels, tender and delicious, is not enhanced by basil pesto, nuts and all, stirred into the broth.

I did learn this: You can get a nice enough piece of fish at the Fish House if you choose your fish and tell them how you want it cooked. And request the sauce on the side. Who knows? The kitchen just might get the idea.

The Fish House, Two Rodeo, 206 N. Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 859-0434. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$70. Smoking at tables in the outdoor courtyard and in the bar. Corkage, $10.

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