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In the Swim

The holidays cry out for traditional activities, so this year a few harried wives and mothers in my neighborhood collaborated to start what we hope becomes an annual "Girls' Night Out." The original intention was to hire a limo--that way no one would get stuck as the designated driver--and go Christmas shopping, have drinks and eat dinner, although not necessarily in that order.

Well, the drinks came first, so there was no shopping this trip.
But we did make it to dinner, at a place I had chosen for its overwhelming aura of tradition: McCormick's Fish House and Bar, in the 105-year-old Oxford Hotel. I'd been to the nearly ten-year-old McCormick's many times before--during my stops I'd washed down items from its $1.95 happy-hour small plates and extensive oyster selection with many a Guinness--but the only full meals I'd eaten there had been the luxurious breakfasts, to which I'd treated myself repeatedly throughout two pregnancies until cravings for McCormick's exemplary eggs Benedict threatened to send my cholesterol level through the roof.

This occasion seemed like the perfect time to try dinner, especially since we prefaced it with a visit to the hotel's Cruise Room, the legendary art-deco cocktail lounge designed in the early Thirties to resemble a bar on the Queen Mary. The reddish lighting that illuminates the wall carvings makes the room look as though it's perpetually blushing--as well it should, considering the intoxicated conversations that have been carried on there by the famous and the not-so-famous. The five of us, of course, fell into the latter category, but we still managed to horn in on a tete-a-tete between a gentleman from Washington, D.C., who says he flies into Denver several times a year to see this woman who comes down from Aspen. (Our take: He's married. She knows but thinks he's going to leave his wife. He's not.) Actually, we got involved with these two only because the place was jammed, as it often is, and we asked them to trade their spacious banquette for our smaller, more intimate booth.

The dining room was even more crowded. We were still waiting for our Cruise Room tab when our dinner reservation came up, and the maitre d' told us she could hold our table for only five more minutes, as she had a list of people waiting to snatch it up. So we quickly paid for our Stingers and La-Las and then settled into the Plum Room, one of the separate sections that's often used for small parties but serves as an overflow area when the main dining room is full. As with the rest of McCormick's, the decor in the Plum Room is elegant but not crushingly so; it's more comfortable than not.

McCormick's is a link in a Portland, Oregon-based chain--but it's nothing like a chain restaurant. In fact, the owners of the parent company, McCormick & Schmick (those are their last names), treat each McCormick's--of which there are twelve, along with a few Jake's, a Wings Cafe and a Harborside or two--as a separate entity. Of course, just about every chain claims to do the same, but each of the eateries owned by these guys is completely different, both in atmosphere and eats; they all boast house chefs who are given territorial rights to create dishes based on local produce and their own talents.

The Denver McCormick's has a new executive chef, Paul Warner, who hopped on board in October after having worked at Jake's Famous Crawfish in Portland. Warner has continued McCormick's practice of changing menus daily, with an ongoing emphasis on seafood--although not as many Pacific Northwest-type dishes as had been offered in the past. Instead, Warner has infused the menu with more fusion dishes, with a noticeable bent toward Hawaiian and Asian ingredients.

But McCormick's fans can still get the old favorites, such as oysters Rockefeller ($9.95), an appetizer that puts to good use some of the beautiful Canadian Malpeque oysters the restaurant often has on hand. (The menu usually lists about six to ten oysters available on the half-shell and also provides useful information about their origins.) The Malpeques get the Rockefeller treatment because of their large size, and here the six bivalves were worthy of their namesake: rich, but not too rich, with more emphasis placed on the spinach than the butter. Another classic, McCormick's Dungeness crab cakes with red-pepper beurre blanc ($8.95), came out a little wanting in the presentation department--a plate holding nothing but the two little cakes and a spoonful of sauce made for a sadly naked display--but did not lack for flavor. Wisely, that flavor focused on the crabmeat itself rather than stuffing and seasonings; the beurre blanc added just the right touch of richness. We scraped up every scrap and then turned our attention to the baked Brie with roasted garlic ($5.75), an enticingly oily oozing of melted cheese next to a whole head of garlic baked soft enough so that the cloves could be popped out and smeared on the accompanying crostini. And while the seared rare ahi with pickled ginger and wasabi ($8.20) had seemed a bit adventuresome for some in our group, once the well-singed tuna had gone around the table, everyone was a convert.

By the time the entrees arrived, the members of our party were getting very possessive of their dishes. Although we agreed to send the plates counterclockwise around the table so that everyone could have a taste, all but one woman fought hard to get hers back. Fortunately, the portions were huge, so there was more than enough to go around. The one woman disappointed with her entree was turned off by the devastatingly spicy strength of the Cajun etouffee ($15.60), an otherwise tasty mix (the word "etouffee" means "smothered") of black beans, cayenne-singed crawfish, shrimp and chicken, all over rice. Both the tortellini with crabmeat in a gorgonzola sauce ($17.80) and the creamy rock shrimp and bay scallop fettucine ($12.75) were well-executed and not too rich, but they were very filling. The Northwest mixed grill ($18.90) included flawlessly prepared fresh salmon and red rockfish, along with another crab cake. And my sweet chardonnay-cured salmon ($17.75) was impeccably fresh, topped with caramelized onions and sided by horseradish-kissed mashed potatoes and green beans steamed with carrots.

So far, so good. We drank a few bottles of wine from McCormick's commendably varied list (the prices and the selection were nicely balanced between high and low end), made a few friends in the crowded dining room--including, we think, our exceptionally tolerant waitress, who made the best of what had to be a difficult table--and tried to keep from being a bunch of catty, gossiping women, at which we failed miserably. But then, our dessert course gave us something to be catty about. The only winner was the raspberry sorbet ($2.95), two vibrantly colored and flavored scoops of a light, decadent-tasting frozen treat. The other desserts were overkill, both in size and style. The creme brulee ($3.95) was a thick, coagulated version reminiscent of pudding; the mixed-berry cobbler ($3.95) had a good taste but was dense and heavy. And the apple crisp ($4.95) was so thick and heavy it reminded us of oatmeal. (It was also about the size of three normal desserts--which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but in this setting and following such sophisticated food, the hefty serving seemed out of place.) The bread pudding ($3.95) is McCormick's best-selling dessert, but it, too, suffered from a nontraditional treatment, with chocolate chips providing much of the (odd) flavor.

We worked off our disappointing desserts by carousing through the lobby looking for some fun. We found it in the form of a guy dressed like a Parisian bellhop, who was working a private party in another one of McCormick's beautiful private rooms and who we convinced to lie across our laps for a photo. Then we asked the limo driver to take us somewhere lively; since the only place in town he knew of with live male strippers had closed, he drove us to Proof of the Pudding--this place is such a meat market the USDA should be required to inspect it--where we relived the Eighties for about twenty minutes before running like hell.

Thank heaven some traditions are made to be broken.


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