Something upscale and fishy is going on in the old PSFS building

SoleFood's 3 Way Crab Cakes. (Photo: Jonathan Wilson)

OK, I admit to ribbing the Loews hotel, when it opened three years ago in the old PSFS building, for a lack of creativity in naming its restaurant.

"The Restaurant at PSFS" wasn't much of a stretch. But the non-name turned out to be the least of its problems. With an inconsistent and overpriced menu, it faded fast from the city's radar screen.

But in its latest effort to create a destination restaurant, the hotel is guilty of trying too hard to be clever. SoleFood, it turns out, does not make soul food. And except for a pleasant but insignificant appetizer of lemon sole fish sticks, there is hardly any sole on the menu, either.

That's surprising, considering that this is an upscale seafood restaurant with a flashy, whole-fish entree called "sole fish." That turns out to be red snapper wearing a toupee of shredded daikon. So much for truth in marketing.

The punsters also should have restrained themselves before naming dishes "roe rage," "yesterday's soup," "sole fingers" and "baby grand." Such shtick detracts from the restaurant's real achievement: It is a vast improvement over its predecessor in almost every way.

New chef Martin Gagne has created an ambitious seafood repertoire. It is beautifully presented and varied, with a contemporary pan-European style that highlights great ingredients and vivid flavors.

His "hot buttered popcorn shrimp" are not the usual deep-fried pellets but a bounty of large, succulent fried shrimp that spill out of a movie popcorn bag onto a plate scattered with buttery bursts of real popcorn. Marinated in buttermilk, these fried shrimp are among the sweetest and most tender I've eaten.

With frequent strokes of such deft culinary irony, Gagne's cooking hardly needs the added yuks of a laugh-track menu.

The service at SoleFood is serious, too, with attentive and well-informed servers and a wine list smartly stocked with intriguing bottles, including some highlights from Alsace and Oregon.

About the only thing still off-kilter is the dining room. Set beneath a richly colored contemporary mosaic that crowns the open kitchen, this plush art-deco space can't separate itself enough from the noisy weekend crowds drinking apple martinis on the other side of the UFO-shaped chandelier hanging above the bar. Even on less busy nights, the Janet Jackson soundtrack is pumped up to a bothersome din.

It feels all the more intrusive because Martin Gagne's cooking is worthy of full attention.

Gagne, who last was chef de cuisine at Hedgerose in Atlanta, is fond of elaborately constructed, multi-element appetizers. And with few exceptions, he manages to pull them off without tripping over his ideas.

"Roe rage" offers a delightful trio of American caviars, with Kentucky paddlefish roe inside a beggar's purse of smoked salmon, shiny Missouri hackleback eggs sitting like shiny black beads atop a spoonful of creme fraiche, and buckwheat blinis topped with salty Tennessee sturgeon roe.

"Tar tar tar" brings three little dishes of very distinctive fish seviches: diced ruby raw tuna perfumed with earthy cumin, buttery salmon piquant with capers and herbs, and tiny scallops shined with a sweet, spicy Asian marinade.

A scallop trio was cumbersome, especially the potato-wrapped scallop and a "ravioli" made from slices of raw scallop instead of pasta. But there were no missteps in the "crab 3 ways," which brought wonderful peekytoe crab salad mingled with crunchy red beets, a lump-filled Maryland crabcake over tartar sauce vibrant green with watercress, and an awesome smoky, chile-spiced crab chowder. It was a bargain at $16, easily big enough to share.

Tender steamed mussels arrived in a shiny copper globe that was opened tableside, releasing a seductive billow of steam scented with ginger and wasabi.

Few starters, though, could match the wow effect of the $36 grand seafood cocktail, a towering erector set of plates topped with sublime medallions of lobster, piles of lump crab, briny clams, intertwined jumbo shrimp, cold raw oysters, and four dipping sauces.

The entrees are a bit more traditional, but no less interesting. Downy white halibut plays against the richness of creamy shrimp risotto and a most unusual garnish of niblet-size periwinkle snails. Poached turbot fillets over fingerling potatoes is a simple, unobtrusive preparation that highlights the purity of the fish.

A slice of buttery grilled sea bass pairs with neat little crepes made with pureed red bell peppers. Pan-roasted scallops and shrimp taste indulgent with truffle-whipped potatoes wrapped in sheer slices of portobello mushroom. For non-seafood- lovers, a fine New York strip steak offers an excellent meat alternative.

Several entrees fell short of their potential. Potato-wrapped tuna mignons were so thick and unwieldy that the delicacy of the rare meat was dulled. The fragrant whole Asian lobster, which had been fried in the shell, was awkward to eat.

The seared arctic char was accompanied by wonderful chanterelles but also by a bowl of gummy gnocchi. And despite its spectacular presentation, the fried whole red snapper was overcooked, its flesh as dry as cotton.

Dessert had one notable misstep, a rectangular green tea creme brulee so oversize that it looked like a plasma TV. But the other sweets were flat-out fun, from the skewered banana fritters with caramel dipping sauce to the warm chocolate gratin.

My favorite was a multilayered strawberry shortcake stacked so high that it defied the laws of gravity - and the punsters, who couldn't name it anything more descriptive than "tall cake."

At least the hotel finally has a kitchen that can speak for itself.

Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or