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At Your Service

Fin de siècle: The Fresh Fish Company does exactly what a restaurant should -- if it opened thirty years ago.
Mark Manger

Outside the front doors of the Fresh Fish Company was a valet -- a big fella, slouched in his chair at the curb, hands in the pockets of his windbreaker. He was staring out at a lot with room for about 10,000 cars, enough parking for the hundreds of people who can fit inside this restaurant to park their own cars, then toddle to the door under their own power. And yet here he was, ready to provide a service that no one was using.

Just inside the door was a lobster tank holding a dozen-odd victims all lumped up in one corner. One of them was about to become my dinner. I picked out a likely specimen and gave him the eye: You're next, pal. I also gave him a name: Larry. Larry the Lobster.

Once in the restaurant proper, I was folded smoothly into the slam dance of Saturday-night service -- registered, my reservations checked, my name recorded. We were told to wait a moment while my party's table was prepared, then cut from the waiting throngs, whisked through the restaurant's huge warren of interconnected dining zones and shown to our table in a room filled with tanks so the fish could see exactly who was the dominant species. It was like being seated for dinner inside a shopping-mall pet store. And before the menus had even arrived, I was handed a customer comment card and told that it was important that I fill it out when I was through with my meal. So I did, and here it is.

THE FRESH FISH COMPANY: HOW DO WE MEASURE UP?

Your valued comments are appreciated and encouraged!

How was your initial experience at the podium? (Excellent Good Poor)

Good. But I must admit that when I entered this establishment, I felt like I'd stepped straight into any one of a dozen bad '80s summer comedies featuring B-list Hollywood funnymen as fathers who take their brood to the seashore for a much-needed vacation. Remember John Candy in Summer Rental? The scene where the rich townie gets the last lobster out of the tank and Candy and his family are forced to go to the floating fish restaurant where Rip Torn serves them frozen scrod? Yeah, like that. At the Fresh Fish Company, you've got that Cape Cod crab-shack-cutesy thing down cold with all the dark wood, the plain tables, the booths upholstered in the same busy floral print as Grandma's second-best sofa (minus the plastic cover), the mounted trophy fish and the lobster tank. The place looks so much like the combo snack bar/gift shop at the end of the Disneyland Finding Nemo Adventure Ride, I expected all the servers to wear pirate hats, stuffed parrots perched on their shoulders, and call everyone "me hearty." Good for you for resisting: There's such a thing as pushing a theme too far.

How would you rate your server and service? (Knowledgeable Friendly Attentive Other)

Our server was all of the above, as well as obsequious, fawning, robotic, overbearing and stifling. Does a server rate as "knowledgeable" just because he's memorized the entire (not insubstantial) menu and can give a rote recitation of everything -- every special, every sauce, every side item and every salad-dressing combination possible within the mathematical confines of the current board of fare? Does he count as "attentive" when he delivers said recitation with his eyes focused on some distant point above our heads, droning like a flight attendant giving the safety instructions to a rowdy bunch of business-class flyers for the hundredth time that night? "Have you been to the Fresh Fish Company before? No? Well, let me tell you a little bit about us...." And then on and on for what seemed like an hour. Granted, it was an impressive feat of memorization, but I've heard that parrots can be trained to do Shakespearean soliloquies if you beat them enough. And they'd probably deliver their spiel with a bit more feeling.

Beyond that, our service was certainly friendly. No want went unfulfilled, no need uncatered to. My crab legs were split for me, the claws cracked and served absent shells. My lobster meat was pulled from the shell and curled around a fork for easy removal; a waitress offered to tie a bib around my neck. I'm sure I could have asked our server to hang lobster claws off his ears and dance the hully-gully and he would've done so with a wink and a smile. So friendly, yes. But when taken to such an extreme, service feels less like service and more like servitude. I understand that the Fresh Fish Company is trying to offer a full-service dining experience -- witness the valet napping by the giant lot -- but unless you're going to throw in free dessert and a hand job, I could do without some of the training wheels. If I ask and you comply, that's good service. If you see something is wrong and fix it, that's good, too. But assuming that I need to have my meat cut for me? That's overkill.  

And buy better hand towels, fer chrissakes. At the end of the meal, I was delivered a warm towel -- which would have been nice if it had been something more than a cut-down, sopping-wet bar rag brought dripping to the table by a busser who handed it to me like he'd just yanked it out of his back pocket. If you're going to do it at all, a hot, rolled cloth offered by a server using a plate and silver tongs usually works. But handing me a wet dishrag to sponge the lobster juice out of my hair? At best, that's a parody of good service, and it borders on insulting.

What did you order and how did it taste? (Use back of comment card if necessary.)

Your menu at the Fresh Fish Company lists roughly 250,000 items, and 90 percent of them seem to be variations on a core of about a dozen varieties of sea creature, all mesquite-grilled, and some shellfish. The remaining 10 percent? Just creepy. I would never order escargot at a place like this, for example. Or sashimi.

Again, I understand that this is just another way to provide training wheels for skittish eaters. By preparing every fish one way (mesquite grilled) and then offering myriad small variations, you create the maximum possibility that customers will find something to their craven liking. That's just business, and I get that you've got a business to run. But the way your kitchen miraculously makes everything on the menu taste like everything else on the menu compounds the food's inherent banality. I also think it's alienating to a large portion of your potential audience -- those who want a dinner that tastes like something other than fish sticks.

There were a few exceptions to this dullness. The Alaskan king crab legs were excellent, cut generous at the hip (if that's what you call the part of the crab where its legs connect) for a lot of that body meat that's denser and more flavorful than the leg itself, and steamed just right. But steaming the suckers is really all you have to do to them, right? Otherwise, everything that's good about a crab or bad about a crab is the fault of the crab itself. Larry the Lobster was also yummy -- probably yummy in the ocean where he came from, still yummy in the tank, and definitely yummy on my plate. All things considered, it's tough to ruin a lobster, but other kitchens have managed it. Yours didn't. Kudos.

I had a side of asparagus with hollandaise sauce that was -- no lie -- the best asparagus and hollandaise I've had in a long time. The portion was huge, the stalks fat and fresh and perfectly cooked, and the hollandaise buttery-rich and deadly fatty, which is exactly the way hollandaise is supposed to be. Unlike lobster and crab, asparagus is easy to mess up, and it's really easy to blow a hollandaise sauce, but both were great. Crab Oscar is another item that's easily ruined by carelessness, but your guys did well. The fried lobster was juicy and tender, the crab stuffing rising to a level much higher than what you'd find at an Applebee's (even if it wasn't quite up to my mother's recipe) and the crabmeat-studded gorgonzola Mornay sauce was velvety, rich as a crooked banker and vividly flavored.

I tried your world-famous calamari and was alarmed to find that your seafood purveyor is apparently employing the crew of the Nautilus to hunt giant, mutant Chernobyl squid. Each ring was huge, big around as a doughnut and thick as a pencil, with about as much flavor. Fortunately, the squid came with a very good coconut curry sauce -- sweet-hot, overpowering and smoothly milky. But excepting this sauce, the hollandaise and the Mornay, every other sauce I tasted had as much soul as a Reno lounge singer and all the excitement of a pair of damp socks. Even the peppery red-wine reduction on a passable filet mignon -- exactly as good as I expect steak in a seafood restaurant to be -- had been befouled by the inclusion of proletarian button mushrooms.

The basil-pesto mahi was green, but that was about it. The ginger-sesame mahi, on the other hand, was pale as death, oily and tail-cut, and came with a side of bitter soy sauce into which the kitchen had dumped some sesame seeds. If there was a sauce beyond the soy, I couldn't find it -- which was probably a mercy. The halibut in lemon-caper sauce was spongy and in desperate need of more help than the bland, lemon-water sauce could provide; the Creole barbecued salmon was notable only for being undercooked and powerfully funky -- not with the clean muskiness of good salmon, but the dirty murk of farm-raised fish getting more than a little long in the tooth. And the crabcakes? Twenty-two fucking dollars is a lot for some lumps of crab and breadcrumbs.  

How did you enjoy your visit to the Fresh Fish Company? Overall impression: Excellent Good Poor

Good, but that's taking into account my love of that John Candy movie. And the fact that I was given a lobster bib, which I still think is cute. And that I've always had a weakness for nautically themed, family-friendly fish-house environments, which always remind me that not too long ago, a dinner out was just that: a dinner eaten out somewhere that wasn't home, prepared by someone who wasn't Mom. There was no expectation of transcendent experiences, no requirement that the place educate or thrill or shock its customers. Or do anything more, really, than serve a decent meal for less money than Dad had in his wallet. The Fresh Fish Company is doing exactly what was expected of a restaurant back when it opened almost thirty years ago: You're serving people quickly, thoroughly and decently, without poisoning anyone and without threatening any senior citizen's antiquated notion of what a dinner out should be.

Value of meal/experience: Excellent Good Poor

I repeat: twenty-two dollars for crabcakes.

Do you have any other comments, observations or recommendations?

Grandma's hundredth birthday? Bring her on down. Folks in town for the weekend and Dad hasn't paid for a restaurant meal since the Eisenhower administration? Call now for reservations. If you're looking for a spot where you can eat un-messed-with lobster at a price that's lower than market rate at the Palm, the Fresh Fish Company isn't a bad spot. But if you're in the mood for anything with, oh, I don't know, flavor or innovation or pirate hats, try another restaurant.

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Fresh Fish Company

7800 E. Hampden Ave.
Denver, CO 80237

303-740-9556

www.thefreshfishco.com


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