Since the only thing lying between Denver and the deep blue sea is a two-hour plane trip, the notion that we can't get fresh fish here doesn't hold water. The fact is, we can get our hands on seafood in less time than it takes the average Los Angeleno to get to the beach during rush hour--and we can reel in nearly anything that swims.
Why, then, do so many of our seafood restaurants flounder?
Maybe it's because the fish often arrive at a high price, forcing the restaurant to skimp elsewhere--by serving ketchup as cocktail sauce, for example. Maybe it's because Coloradans don't complain about mediocre fish dishes because they're so happy to have them at all. Or perhaps it's because chefs here simply don't get enough practice, what with all those orders for buffalo steaks and bull testicles. Whatever the reason, of the twenty or so self-proclaimed fish houses in the area, only four or five are consistently good.
The rest are drowning in mediocrity--and into that pool you can now throw Boulder's JAX and Cherry Creek's Rick's Blue Water Grill.
At least what JAX lacks in substance it makes up for in scene--hip, ripped and puffy-lipped. Waistless waif-women and grunge-beard guys guzzle microbrews with oyster-shooter chasers at a raw bar lined with iced shellfish and topped by an enormous jar of vodka floating with layers of melon and pineapple. JAX is always packed, a condition amplified by the sardine-close tables aligning the walls and the long, narrow space this restaurant occupies on the Pearl Street Mall. We were squeezed into a table next to the kitchen--normally a negative, but since JAX is one of those perpetually loud places, the location didn't matter. Brought to you by Dave Query--a former Cliff Young executive chef, former owner of Q's in the Hotel Boulderado and current owner of the Southwestern stunner Zolo Grill--JAX is a hit because of its well-known owner (from whom we have come to expect bigger things), its location, its novelty and its ability to convince people who go there that they're part of something.
But not because of its execution, which nets mixed reviews.
Drawn to the oysters displayed at the bar, we started out strong with a sampler ($7.50) featuring two each of three types--Chesapeake Bay, Washington state's amazing Westcot and Florida's Apalachicola. All were sparklingly fresh, well-chilled and pleasantly plump with the cold water that live oysters suck from the ice melting beneath them. Trying oysters from several regions in one sitting results in the same kind of taste revelations you find when comparing flights of wine, but with oysters the differences are in texture, saltiness and smell. We enhanced the tasting process with simple accompaniments of lemon wedges and a mild cocktail sauce, rather than the trio of sauces that appeared on our table without explanation. We later identified them as more cocktail sauce, a red-pepper tartar sauce and mustard sauce, which had been listed as coming with the appetizer of house-smoked trout ($6.95). The two fillets of ever-so-slightly-smoked trout arrived with the usual caper-onion-egg embellishments and two pieces of crisp crostini.
So far, so good. But the real tests were the dishes that required more effort, and that's where JAX was hit-or-miss. For instance, the clam chowder ($4.75 for a bowl) was rich and creamy and filled with tender clams and soft-as-snow potatoes, and another appetizer, the Manila clams ($7.95), arrived steamed in a brilliant, spicy, soupy sauce of garlicky, cream-tinged red curry. But the soft-shell crab special ($9.50) offered just one pathetic crab (the waitress failed to mention that $16.50 would bring two) fried so crispy that there was no meat--or taste--left. The sun-dried-tomato risotto cake under the former crustacean was interesting but hardly flavorful enough to overcome overdone crab.
The crab was no better served by the bland Dungeness crab-cake burger ($8.50), which carried only the barest whiff of the creature's sweetness; the black-bean-studded rice on the side had even less going for it. And the hush puppies ($2) could have substituted as diapers--they were so dry they absorbed saliva as we chewed. And chewed. (After customers complained, Query says he dumped the recipe and came up with a new one.) Dryness also was a problem with the stir-fry special of salmon, halibut and tuna tossed with rice, pea shoots and lemon leaf, whose citrusy subtleness was lost on the overcooked fish.
Then again, JAX served up a wonderful shellfish bourride ($14.50), a perfect version of this bouillabaisse-like Mediterranean soup. The juices from the shellfish--two each of shrimp, oysters, mussels and clams--had melded into one delicious broth swimming with small strips of orange rind, slips of fennel, garlic and a discernible touch of saffron. Although aioli was mentioned on the menu, it had either been stirred into the mix or the staff had forgotten about it--not unlikely, since about eight employees seemed to share responsibility for our table. Query says he has arranged the service so that customers want for nothing--and, indeed, our every need was met promptly, though we were treated to excessive can-I-take-thises and an annoying air of confusion.
But at least JAX tries--and sometimes succeeds superbly.
In contrast, Rick's Blue Water Grill appears to be lost at sea. Last year Rick's owners ( who've shown they can do things right at the Trinity Grill and Rocky Mountain Diner) gave Denver's original fern bar an updated name, a new menu and a new look in which monstrous Disneyesque fish in Day-Glo colors hang from the ceiling. But the highly spiced Caribbean menu turned off the lounge lizards who frequented the Cafe, and soon after it opened, Rick's again revamped its menu, removing many of the island items and reworking other recipes to turn down the heat. In the process, though, it turned off much of the flavor. Seasoning rarely surfaced in the dishes we tried.
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Of the five dinner entrees recommended by our waiter, only one had ever been near the water. It also happened to be the only keeper we encountered during two meals there, as well as one of the few survivors of last year's purge. An order of the coconut shrimp ($11.95) brought six large, toasty-coconut-encrusted shrimp served alongside a mound of rice and steamed vegetables and accompanied unnecessarily by what was purported to be an apricot horseradish sauce but tasted like cocktail sauce with extra horseradish. That was as good as it got.
The quesadilla ($3.95)--little more than Jack cheese and a few chile bits--was supposed to come with a mango mojo (say what?), but the sauce had all the power of pureed mango in mayonnaise. The sea scallops ($10.95) had been grilled into golf balls and served with hashbrowns that were more like hashblacks; the blackened prime rib ($17.95) was so light on the pepper it could have been called browned prime rib; the crab cakes ($8.95) were all bread and their aioli mostly mayonnaise; the sesame-crusted mahi mahi ($7.95) was actually sesame-spattered and nestled against a "mango swirl" of something sweet mixed with something creamy.
I thought dessert might make our meals a wash, but no such luck. The Key lime pie ($2.95) did taste like lime, but the custard was weak. And the coconut cream pie ($2.95)--who could hurt a coconut cream pie?--was nothing but a pie crust filled with what amounted to whipped cream on top of whipped cream.
Thank heavens Rick's isn't the only fish in the sea.