Cafe Society

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.

The staff clearly had decided to regard the positive review as the accurate one--and our second Mostly Seafood meal was just as bad as our first. This time, though, we got to sit at a table next to Perry Warren and a lady friend--nay, we got to sit up against Warren himself, who turned his chair around and shoved it against my husband's in order to get closer to his companion--as well as a bunch of restaurateur groupies who were assuring Warren that the negative review had been hogwash. I have complete confidence that Warren had no idea who I was, mainly because the group was talking loudly about things that you would not want a journalist to overhear. And also because, along with our starter of blackened fish fingers ($5.95), we had to swallow a fair amount of Warren and his friend sticking their tongues down each other's throats, which my toddler found quite mesmerizing.

Luckily, the fish fingers were an appetizing-enough distraction--the planks of salmon and grouper had been coated in Cajun seasonings and served with a punchy remoulade. And while the rolls were still rock-hard on the bottom--even the positive review had mentioned that problem--our soups were perfectly fresh and surprisingly delectable. Both the Manhattan clam chowder and the New England version (each $1.95 a cup) were packed with clams and flavor, with the Manhattan boasting a savvy, gravy-like tomato base and the New England a rich, potato-heavy broth.

But that's when the tide went out, leaving us high and dry--much like the macadamia-encrusted ahi ($18.95). After making a huge deal about how the ahi "must be served medium rare," the waiter brought me a piece of fish as dried-out and hard as the plate it sat on. He cheerfully returned it to the kitchen, but with no apology or comment, and even though I know damn well Warren heard the whole exchange, he never turned for a second to see if everything was all right. I passed the time--a long time, for a fish supposedly cooking to medium rare--by stabbing at the Boston blackback flounder ($14.95), listed on the menu as "Perry's favorite," which must mean that he enjoys shoe leather coated with breadcrumbs, because that's what this sad piece of fish resembled. The accompanying new potatoes were drenched--we're talking soggy like a slice of bread in water--with butter, and when more of the spuds appeared with the ahi, for some reason the kitchen had dumped them out of their little bowl and into the tarragon-mustard cream sauce that covered the now nicely cooked fish.

Since everyone else was done eating, I downed half of the ahi and looked forward to dessert. Big mistake. The carrot cake ($4.50) had been lauded on the menu as a "Best of Westword" winner--but that award was made last year, when baker Marilyn Callender was working at Pete's Market and making the incredible cream-cheese-slathered, dense, moist cake for that establishment. Here, it tasted like Mostly Seafood had taken Callender's creation--she'd worked for Warren at the original restaurant--and stashed it in the refrigerator for decades, turning the delicacy into a cold, dried-out brick that tasted like cardboard. The Key lime tart ($4.50) had suffered a similar fate; overcooked to begin with, it had the texture of old Jell-O.

Since my family was not eager to return, it was just me and the slimy steamed Canadian sea scallops ($15.95) on the third visit. The scallops were disgusting. But at least they were wet, which is more than can be said for the side of Cajun rice, little pellets that resembled rabbit food sprinkled with chile powder. I told the waiter to send the meal back and, when he acted as though the state of the scallops was my fault, I paid the bill, left no tip and walked out.

So diner, beware: Mostly Seafood is mostly bad food, and any critic who thinks otherwise is all wet.

Mostly Seafood, 2223 South Monaco Parkway, 756-8230. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 9 a.m.-2 p.m.; 4-8 p.m. Sunday.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner