Where familiar dishes don't get old
There are trickier culinary specialties out there — preparing fugu comes to mind, since a death or two from blowfish nerve poison can affect a place’s Chowhound rating. But as a restaurant genre, seafood is hard enough to be an Olympic event. A hurdler doesn’t face as many chances to get tripped up.
Mccormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurant | 11 Dorrance St, Providence | Daily, 6:30 am-11 pm | Major credit cards | Full bar | Sidewalk-level access | 401.351.4500
McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurant isn’t afraid of the challenges, I was reminded recently. The occasion was a media dinner focusing on crab, an opportunity to see how the kitchen played with subtle differences in flavors. So the Dungeness crab cake was under a light mustard sauce to bring out its buttery taste, which was similar to that of blue crab. The king crab had only a touch of sherry mayo to let its assertive crabness punch through. And so on.
Memories of M&S’s delicate, lightly pan-fried Yearling oysters and their refreshingly un-muddy catfish drifted back, and I looked forward to returning for a regular meal. The idea of chain restaurants can trigger images of spice packets hurriedly torn and dumped in the kitchen, but all such places are not born equal.
This one began with a failing crawfish restaurant brought back to life in Portland, Oregon, in the early 1970s, an auspicious accomplishment by Bill McCormick. An additional inducement for getting things right in Rhode Island is that as a kid, he parked cars at the Biltmore Hotel, where the Providence restaurant is located.
The first step in a seafood restaurant is making sure that your oh-so perishable offerings are fresh and that you maintain reliable sources for such. (One restaurant in Providence used to offer fish only on Fridays, when the fishing boat they had an arrangement with came back to port.)
When it comes to freshness, economies of scale and priority contracts with suppliers make cloning a seafood restaurant a smart idea, when you think about it. McCormick & Schmick’s draws your attention to its main selling point by having a “Fresh List” at the top of its menu, printed twice a day. When we came for dinner recently, there were 27 items on that list, fish and shellfish that had come in that day. Where they hail from is specified, to the point that oysters from Prince Edward Island’s Salutation Cove are identified separately as Northumberland and Salutation.
What they categorized as “Traditional Seafood” are eight items tucked away as an afterthought in the bottom right corner of the large, single-sheet menu. They’ve got sole française and your linguine with clam sauce covered. But elsewhere on the menu you can get monkfish, wrapped in pancetta and pan-seared, and a whole steamed Dungeness crab (upwards of $30, depending on size).
Numerous steaks are available, from porterhouse to rib eye, but wouldn’t ordering one here be like having a scotch at a tea party? We chose from the Fresh List. For a starter, we passed up those pan-fried oysters ($7.95) to see how they’d do with calamari ($10.95).
We were going to try the version that came with three dipping sauces, but our waiter said that the traditional version is so good that he never orders the dish anywhere else. It was good — big, tender rings lightly battered, tossed with the vinegary liquid of the sliced banana peppers for a nice, tart tang.
Johnnie missed anchovy in her Caesar salad ($6.95) and enough garlic in the croutons. The latter were two thin slabs in a nice presentation, but not already distributed and absorbing the dressing.
We chose similar entrees, to compare them. From the grill, her swordfish ($23.95) had the firmness and delicate flavor that indicated freshness. Likewise, my Mako shark ($18.95), similar in taste but less firm, couldn’t have been pulled from Block Island waters long before. The swordfish came with sun-dried tomato butter, and the shark was pressed with cracked black peppercorns and served under a brandy Dijon cream sauce. Steamed squash came with both, mashed potatoes with mine, and well-roasted red bliss with hers.
For their everyday bar menu (3:30-6:30 pm and 10 pm-midnight), the restaurant’s normally $8.95 half-pound cheeseburger and fries is $1.95, when you purchase $2.50 in beverages. Tuesday’s $1 oyster night ain’t too shabby either.
More than two dozen wines by the glass are served in five- as well as eight-ounce portions. Our dessert tray contained nothing but temptations ($4-$13). We were happy with the truffle cake sundae, but the Boston cream pie was an almost. It looked so fresh.
On the Web
McCormick &Schmick's Seafood: www.mccormickandschmicks.com
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