A Rough Sea

Two restaurant critics for competing dailies visited a restaurant several times in the same week, ate nearly identical meals and published their reviews on the same Friday. One said the meals were among the best he's had. The other said the meals were among the worst he's had.

What gives?
Well, in the case of this particular restaurant, Mostly Seafood, it seems obvious that the writer of the positive review gave himself away when he first came in to eat--because I couldn't get a decent meal in this place to save my life. And believe me, when you're talking about spoiled seafood, things can turn pretty deadly indeed. Two of my three meals were tainted by fish past its prime, and all three were rife with production and waitstaff problems.

It's not as if the owner of Mostly Seafood doesn't know how to do this right, either. He's Perry Warren, whose first version of Mostly Seafood opened in the mid-Eighties in the same plaza as this incarnation. As Warren himself admits, after the success of his original spot, he made the mistake of opening a second location on the 16th Street Mall and spread himself too thin trying to make both restaurants work. In the end, neither did, and a bankrupt Warren moved to a South Dakota farm six years ago. Apparently, though, the lure of the fish house business was too much for him, and he jumped back into the swim of things, opening the third Mostly Seafood three months ago.

I never visited the first two, but nothing I'd heard about them prepared me for my first encounter with this one, which came two days before the dueling reviews were published. The restaurant--in the space formerly occupied by another seafood spot, the Gourmet Seafood Cafe, which was the doomed followup to the popular Marvin Gardens--was nearly empty, with only three filled tables, including ours. Even so, our waitress was flustered and the service excruciatingly slow. We started things off by asking for a few extra minutes to look through the overly ambitious menu--28 different seafood entrees plus several specials--but it took a full twenty for the waitress to return. And when she did, she asked only for our appetizers. "I'll just get those going and then talk to you about your entrees," she said, even though we told her point-blank that we were ready to give the whole order. And then, when she finally brought our appetizers, she told us to "go ahead and work on those for a while and I'll come back and get your entree orders." Say what? Nothing like eating with the menu tucked under your arm.

We managed to juggle our way through an order of steamed New England cockles ($8.95)--overpriced, as were most of the starters, but indisputably delicious, one of the few things we enjoyed at Mostly Seafood. The bivalves swam in a thin, buttery sauce and scads of whole garlic cloves whose flavor had permeated everything. The tiny portion of pecan-smoked trout ($7.95), however, was bland, bland, bland--it could have been smoked with pecans or plain white paper, for all we could tell. And the accompanying horseradish sauce was eye-poppingly strong--maybe to give the trout some flavor, maybe to blow out our tastebuds altogether.

Unfortunately, the effect of the horseradish had worn off by the time we got the soups, so we could actually taste them. The lobster bisque ($3.25 a cup) was just plain weird; it seemed as though the kitchen had taken the commercial lobster base many restaurants use and added nothing but cream to its slightly off flavor. The seafood gazpacho ($2.25 a cup) was more than slightly off. Our waitress--whom we'd already sent back to the kitchen once for more rolls, because the ones we'd been given had been warmed until the bottoms were like Avalanche practice pucks--had finally consented to take our entree orders when she'd returned to check on the appetizers. Trying to be diplomatic, we joked that maybe the kitchen had used carbonated water in the crabmeat-laden, tomato-based soup, so fizzy and fermented was the gazpacho. She took our suggestion quite seriously and came back to report that, no, there was no seltzer in the soup. Okay, then, we replied, this soup is bad. Back to the kitchen she went, only to return again to report that "the chef says it's fine." She plopped the same bowl down and added, "Well, if you still think there's something wrong with it, I can take it off the bill." Whatever, but get it off our table, we replied.

Another lengthy wait preceded the arrival of the entrees. The Copper River salmon ($18.95) turned out to be wonderful, fresh and steamed properly (the cooking choices for fish were grilled, blackened, steamed, fried or sauteed), with a side of thick, creamed spinach. But the soft-shell crab ($14.95) was downright awful. Eating it was like pouring the contents of a container of Morton's iodized salt into our mouths and then washing the salt down with melted butter. And the side of Szechuan vegetables had been cooked into a squishy mess.

When we returned for a second visit, five days after the dueling reviews, we found the restaurant nearly full. Great, we thought, maybe the increased business would translate into better food. But no such luck.

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