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A Few Pearls Found Among the Oysters

At McCormick & Schmick's, hard-shell denizens of the deep are menu's gems; pastas are good too.

November 30, 2000|TOM VASICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ten years ago I was in love with oysters, and McCormick & Schmick's was the best place in Orange County to get them. I worked within shouting distance of John Wayne Airport, so it was an easy trek to Irvine for happy-hour drinks and big, ice-filled platters of bluepoints, Fanny Bays and Malpeques.

It was as educational as going to a wine tasting. In the course of time, I came to appreciate the subtle differences between Fanny Bays, with their salty, cucumber-like finish, and firm, mildly rich Hammersleys.

But one does not exist on oysters alone, and I soon moved on to other culinary landscapes. It was with a bit of nostalgia that I returned to McCormick & Schmick's recently to find the same diverse, inviting oyster selections.

Of course, McCormick & Schmick's offers much more than oysters. It has one of the county's most wide-ranging seafood menus, regularly listing 40 or more fresh selections a day, served in nearly 90 ways.

When I returned, six of these choices were oysters, with Sunset Beach and Chef Creek joining some of my old oyster friends from Washington and British Columbia, so I started with a combination plate. A dozen oysters for $18.90 may seem a bit much, but it's hard to find oysters like these, gleaming and silver in their half-shells, each with rich, distinctive flavors that not even a little horseradish could hide. I hadn't eaten oysters in years, and they reminded me of what I had been missing.

McCormick & Schmick's may specialize in oysters, but it offers a lot more, and not just the fish from the Pacific Northwest for which this Portland-based restaurant chain first made its name. The Irvine location also features a large selection from the Pacific's warmer reaches, such as mahi-mahi from Ecuadorean waters, Hawaiian opah and swordfish, and hibi, wahoo and albacore from Fiji.

These are listed as specialties and are all served with a sauce befitting their exotic nature. Most of the combinations work well. Opah--a light, buttery whitefish--is broiled and covered with a spicy, creamy ponzu that, in small dabs, really accents the fish. Broiled wahoo, which is flakier, is accentuated by a sharp, roasted, red-pepper sauce. But the blackened swordfish in mango salsa showed an unappetizing blend of sweet and spicy, and it had been blackened a bit too much.

McCormick & Schmick's has a good reputation, so it was surprising that the regular menu items were of inconsistent quality. There are some wonderful appetizers, such as pancetta-wrapped prawns in spicy Thai barbecue sauce. The thick cakes of Dungeness crab and shrimp are chewy and flavorful, and the rock shrimp popcorn--breaded, deep-fried shrimp served with a peppy remoulade--is a fun choice for a large group. But seafood pot stickers are bland and rather tough here, and tartar sauce inappropriately comes with the fried calamari.

Among the soups, the New England-style clam chowder is creamy and filled with tasty clams. But the seafood bisque, offered as a special one Saturday night, was bland and at the same time had a scorched flavor.

This Jekyll-and-Hyde pattern doesn't hold among the pastas, I'm glad to say. These large, heaping bowls feature good seafood and complementary ingredients and sauces. For example, the fettuccine with rock shrimp and bay scallops is mixed with a garlic cream sauce that accents the shellfish perfectly, though it does tend to splatter off the pasta. Eat carefully. The thinner capellini swims with rock shrimp, tomato, basil and garlic; it's a light, flavorful dish, perfect if you don't feel like a heavy meal.

When brew pubs became trendy in the '90s, McCormick & Schmick's turned its adjacent nightclub into the Pilsner Room, where Bayhawk ales are brewed and served. Because I appreciate lighter brews, I particularly like the smooth honey-blond and amber Bayhawk ales, but others swear by the pale ales and the chocolate porters.

You can find good accompaniments for these beers on the lunch and light-entrees section of the menu.

Although McCormick & Schmick's succeeds in so many areas, it might want to reconsider its desserts, which are mediocre across the board. On one Saturday night, our group of six hardly touched our desserts.

The chocolate-raspberry cheesecake was so sour and gooey it was hard to eat, and the soggy tiramisu and decidedly nontart Key lime pie weren't much better.

But people don't usually come to seafood restaurants for the dessert. And people who are out for seafood won't blanch at the prices, which vary from moderate for the lunch and light entrees ($6-$11) to a bit higher ($14-$21) for the seafood dinners. On Fridays from 4-7 p.m., a one-pound lobster special is offered for $14.95.

* McCormick & Schmick's, 2000 Main St., Irvine. (949) 756-0505. Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 5-11 p.m. The Pilsner Room is open until 2 a.m. daily.

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