Your Fish Is My Command
How you feel when you hear the words McCormick & Schmick's depends a lot on context. If you're engaged in a discussion with your broker about your stock portfolio, you're probably going to feel pretty damned high, because the chain, which has opened more than 60 seafood restaurants since its founding in the late '70s, posted profits of $75.6 million in the third quarter of this year, with earnings up 19 cents a share. Jon Markman at moneycentral.msn.com is totally bullish: The company has just gobbled up a Canadian group of waterfront eateries, The Boathouse; it has plans to open 20 more restaurants in the next two years; and it looks like smooth sailing's ahead for this "smart, simple concept of offering fresh fish in a clubby atmosphere with good service at high but not crazy prices." Buy! Buy! Buy!
If, on the other hand, you're an African-American busboy sitting in your attorney's office discussing your potential inclusion in a class-action discrimination suit, you might be feeling that your dealings with McCormick & Schmick's have been nothing short of one big, fat bummer. A suit filed on behalf of black employees in May 2006 has charged that this happy, attractive, family-friendly restaurant's "managers have been told to hire fewer African Americans, to bar them from 'front-of-the-house' positions and to discipline them more harshly," thereby violating state and federal anti-discrimination laws, to provide a "white image" to the public.
McCormick & Schmick's is not alone in being accused of this kind of discrimination, of course (remember Cracker Barrel and Waffle House!) the invisibility of people of color in restaurants is an ongoing problem. But with upticking stock prices come upticking moral responsibilities there's a kind of noblesse oblige required. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
So when the bulging envelope of swag from McCormick & Schmick's PR firm landed on my desk at New Times, after I'd distributed the key chains and the sippy cups and made a pass through their glossy cookbook, I figured I was obligated to go have a look at the new outlet they'd opened in Boca. The grand opening had kicked off with a "fish toss," during which Mr. Schmick himself had ceremonially hoisted a 50-pound salmon. M&S is known for the "fresh list" on its vast seafood menu, printed twice a day to reflect what comes in to the kitchen, more often via plane and truck than by boat. And many a penniless student, from Kansas City to Hackensack, has spent a happy hour or two scarfing down the famous $1.95 hors d'oeuvres between 3:30 and 6:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. With the heat-seeking accuracy of a highly motivated corporate marketing missile, McCormick & Schmick's had chosen a site for its 64th location right across the street from Florida Atlantic University and next door to a Whole Foods so successful that it's currently in the process of doubling in size. M&S plopped down into a space that needed practically zero renovation. A couple of dollars for velvet curtains to close off those "romantic" private booths and the place was transformed from a failed French bistro (the late, unlamented Mon Ami Brasserie) into a wildly successful competitor for Legal Seafoods, with parties lining up at the door and hogging all the tables until, at 9:15 on a recent Saturday night, a little one opened up for moi.
The dinner menu for December 2 began with a fresh list of 30 piscine delicacies. The localish options included mahi-mahi from "Deadman's Bay" (actually Deadman, on the Gulf Coast), red snapper and stone crab claws from Key West, wahoo and grouper from Panama City. There were far-flung, exotic specimens golden corvina from Chile, Mexico blue crab, Cape Fear swordfish, tilapia from Costa Rica, Periera rainbow trout, Quilcene oysters from Washington. And this was just the beginning, because the menu is lubriciously detailed. You settle into your cozy table and it's a halfway erotic pleasure to contemplate the planet through the M&S lens: Where is Hood Canal? Or Netart Bay? Are calamari from Rhode Island more delectable than salmon from New Brunswick? Is one in the mood for crawfish from Galveston or rather catfish from Ayden? You're an armchair tourist, and the world is, indeed, your oyster.
This is where you begin to understand the McCormick & Schmick magic, and it's so brilliant that it makes you want to run right out and buy up as many shares as you can stomach (trading at $25.28 as of this writing). No matter what the food actually tastes like at this point, whether it's spankingly fresh, creatively prepared, or nothing of the sort, this menu has gone and put the idea in your head that you are a master of the universe. You command the globe as thoroughly as an ancient Chinese emperor or a 17th-century Hapsburg prince. From the Bay of Fundy to Machias, from Point Judith to Snow Creek (and truly, these mysterious locales might as well be on the moon), you have only to whisper a word to your server to have plucked for your delectation, from near or far, the greatest fish-flavored edibles the world has to offer.
What a time we live in, eh?
Still, we stuck stubbornly close to home, two accidental and unadventurous tourists. We ordered stone crab claws from Key West (three for $19.90) and black grouper ($21.95) and wahoo ($19.90) from Panama City. And we ventured farther afield for those calamari ($11.85) from Point Judith, Rhode Island, just to see if they differed in the least from the calamari-from-anywhere offered by every other restaurant in South Florida. And, while McCormick & Schmick's allows plenty of opportunity for freshly grilled fish with just a dab of lemon butter (which, in retrospect, I highly recommend), we went for more elaborate preparations, figuring the chef might like to show off a little. Our server had opined that his favorite was the Atlantic salmon from New Brunswick stuffed with blue crab, Oregon bay shrimp, and brie ($19.90), but I couldn't quite wrap my head around that brie. So I'd gone with his second favorite, the black grouper stuffed with blue crab and Boursin. I'm ever suspicious of fish-cheese combinations (there's a reason Italians frown on this practice) unless I happen to be tucking into tuna fish and cheddar casserole with an 8-year-old, but I put my reservations aside. My partner had the wahoo glazed in bourbon and topped with shiitakes on a bed of tomato and "sautéed greens."
The crab claws were a mistake, it turned out. Not that they were bad. But we should have been sitting in a brightly lit room with bibs tied around our necks at a table covered with brown paper. Stone crabs are messy eating what was I thinking!? and trying to extract shreds of sweet meat from those unforgiving claws in the half-light of a halfway-elegant restaurant was no picnic. The claws came with a pleasant citrusy mustard sauce that was quite good. But I wished I'd just ordered the crab, shrimp, and artichoke dip instead, at roughly half the price. The calamari were a little more tender than you find in other restaurants, but I wouldn't go further than describing them as pleasant. Also, the three sauces offered (a marinara, an aioli, and a strange, sweet green sauce that tasted of citrus and cilantro) weren't compatible you had to choose one and stick with it to save your stomach.
Our entrées arrived, and what a mess they were. I felt particularly bad for my companion, whose "sautéed greens" under her wahoo was actually a salad mesclun mix swimming in some kind of lukewarm butter lemon sauce (I'd venture, not real butter) and topped with a tomato, as if the tomato were a life preserver to save the fish from drowning. Her wahoo was in fact bone dry (as wahoo often is, if it isn't prepared exactingly), and the bourbon glaze couldn't pull this dish from its sloppy conception and execution. Yuck.
My black grouper was a mite better, if only because the fish was very smooth and delicate. It probably was a delicious fillet, but there's no way you could taste much when it was drenched in Boursin cheese, which is heavy on garlic and chives (essentially, Boursin is one step up from onion dip). The crab, naturally, got lost in this brew. A serving of string beans and carrots alongside was crisp but tasteless; ditto the rice, completely lacking in any flavor save pepper (as if to balance its overripe neighbor). Based on these two dishes, I'd give the kitchen a gentleman's D-plus.
It must be said, however, that the prices here are reasonable you don't find many white tablecloth seafood restaurants serving plates of fish for under 20 bucks (Legal Seafoods, of course, does come to mind, along with its policy of mercury testing its fish and offering a gluten-free menu practices M&S has been slow to adopt). Let's hear it for the chains, which can keep their prices down by selling volume.
A dessert ($6.95) of chocolate in three layers ganache, mousse, and cake was forgettable. Service (from our white waiter, white food runner, and black busboy) had been just fine, if mildly overbearing, and no doubt that busboy is soon headed for promotion. Were I to return and I doubt it I'd probably order a couple of plates of diverse raw mollusks and something hot off the grill. Somebody in this kitchen is lacking in judgment, and the larger company may be short on progressive political savvy. But it's still pretty hard to screw up a freshly shucked oyster.
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