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Seafood That's Making a Splash

June 21, 1998|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Beach food just isn't what it used to be. Santa Monica and Venice, not your typical beach towns, granted, are nevertheless home to some of Southern California's best--and most offbeat--restaurants. Newport Beach boasts Orange County's toniest dining establishment. But in the South Bay, until Michael Franks and Robert Bell jump-started the dining scene with Chez Melange, Descanso and Depot, that part of the coast wasn't exactly a hotbed of restaurant activity. Now there's Splash, Cucina Paradiso, David's, a Wolfgang Puck Cafe and, as of a few months ago, a flashy new McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurant.

What a concept--a serious fish restaurant by (well, near) the beach. Actually, it's Manhattan Beach adjacent, just across the street from a gigantic fitness club and a theater complex, making McCormick & Schmick's a perfect place to nosh at after a workout or movie. Its huge bar is also a natural for after-work socializing. Yet it's more than just a young singles scene. Weekend or weeknight, it's always crowded with a mix of seafood lovers.

Like the five other McCormick & Schmick's restaurants in the Los Angeles and Orange county areas, this one has lots of dark wood, polished brass, beveled-glass panels, stained-glass lamps and seafood-themed art. The effect is vaguely Victorian crossed with Art Deco, about as authentic looking as a '70s fern bar.

On one visit our extremely competent waiter asks if we've been to McCormick & Schmick's before. Not everyone, so he launches into a speedy rendition of the restaurant's history. What started out as Jake's saloon "about 100 years ago" in Portland later became Jake's Famous Crawfish Restaurant. Entrepreneurs Bill McCormick and Doug Schmick became a team with the Portland landmark in the early '70s. They did so well they opened a second restaurant, in Seattle, then another in Portland, calling it McCormick & Schmick's. The rest is history, as they say. The series of restaurants, of which the one in El Segundo is the 19th, now encompasses six states, making McCormick & Schmick's more or less the Morton's of Chicago or Ruth's Chris Steak House of the seafood world.

Our waiter goes on to explain that all the seafood is fresh and mostly cooked in a Pacific Northwest style. At the top of the menu, which is printed daily, is a list of all the raw materials--Lake Superior whitefish, Washington Sund Creek oysters, Florida Bay scallops, Louisiana catfish. And a note that most of the fish is available grilled with lemon butter--something to keep in mind.

Maybe it's because the restaurant is new, but the kitchen, under the direction of Melba Rodriguez, is right on the mark most nights, which is not the experience I've had at a couple of the other locations. Grilled fish, steamed shellfish and other straightforward preparations are generally very good. And while I might not be crazy about some of the more creative preparations, they are, for the most part, at least cooked correctly.

As a starter, nothing beats the impeccably fresh oysters on the half shell. Usually there's a selection of half a dozen, including the sweet, briny Kumamotos, Hog Island oysters from Tomales Bay and Hama Hamas from Washington state. Rodriguez also features a lovely oyster stew that is basically a bowl of cream with huge, succulent Malaspina oysters floating in it. It's no appetizer portion (though it's called that); it's an entire meal.

In fact, most of the starters are best shared. The kitchen does a nice job with fried oysters, too, which are served with a punchy cocktail sauce and a fine tartare. Deep-fried calamari are dusted with a smoldering chile powder. And popcorn shrimp--rock shrimp that are thoroughly battered and come with an extravagantly spiced remoulade to dip them in--are terrific. And if you like shrimp cocktail, you'll enjoy the restaurant's sweet, meaty prawns and a cocktail sauce lashed with enough horseradish to bring tears to your eyes.

Did I mention that the menu is huge? It's daunting to read all the way through it. One day my eyes stop on the Dungeness crab Louis and I read no farther. I haven't had crab Louis in years, and I order it. What I get is a delicious salad of chopped iceberg topped generously with delicate fresh Dungeness crab and a textbook Thousand Island dressing.

The steamed Maine lobster suffers from the usual problem on this coast: Even if the lobsters are live, they barely taste like they do on the East Coast. So it doesn't matter, really, that the corn on the cob served with it is overcooked.

The two Southerners in our party go straight to the Louisiana catfish and the steamed shrimp in Tabasco mash, respectively. But enthusiasm turns to disappointment when the Alabamian finds the catfish breading soggy. And that Tabasco mash is spicy all right, but you might as well drink half a bottle of Tabasco because you can't taste the shrimp beneath the onslaught.

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