A seafood menu that's easy on the wallet — but not always on the palate

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The deftly grilled mahimahi with pineapple salsa and sweet potato chips. (Eric S. Wirtz / Inquirer)<br>

It's easy to be smitten, as I was, by a momentary "value buzz" at McCormick & Schmick's, the swanky new seafooder kitty-corner to City Hall.

Something seems intriguingly off-kilter. The dinner entrees rarely break $20, but the square dining room has the look of a rich man's club. Vaulted copper ceilings and stained-glass chandeliers shimmer above dark, wood-paneled walls. And from the mezzanine, eight private velvet-curtained booths called "snugs" peer down, like skyboxes, at the bustling room below and its mostly business crowd that has fueled a power-restaurant boom on South Broad Street.

The positive impressions continue with the menu, printed twice a day to reflect the kitchen's stock of fresh seafood (which sometimes numbers nearly 40 items). It offers a nice blend of traditional and modern dishes, from fish and chips to ponzu-splashed sea bass, and prices are lower than expected.

But so is the quality of the cooking.

And that's a problem when your trade is seafood, the trickiest of all foods to prepare because it is so delicate, so sensitive to freshness, and so easily overdone.

My first of four visits was certainly the best, a lunch in which everything was fine: a deep-fried soft-shell crab poking its crispy legs out of a soft brioche sandwich bun; a deftly grilled fillet of mahimahi glazed in mango barbecue sauce; and a moist, lumpy rendition of a classic fried crabcake. A selection of raw oysters from six different regions was nicely shucked, tender and briny cold.

The restaurant's young servers were pleasant and eager to please, though one could have been cast as The Waiter Who Knew Too Much, delivering a five-minute monologue on his personal menu favorites and a dissertation on the chemistry of each sauce before we'd even glanced at the menu.

I'd happily take the wordy waiter if the kitchen had its act together. But after that first lunch, very little lived up to its promise.

Overcooking was the most common slip. The calamari were chewy, as were the clams casino. A fillet of trout was dry, tasting mostly of the char-grilled stripes crisscrossing the flesh. The fried oysters were pasty and overripe inside. Even the pita chips served with the bland crab dip were mistreated, nearly burned to a mahogany brown.

A worse mistake, though, was to undercook the showy deep-fried whole red snapper. Never mind that the fish arrived curled head to tail inside a tiny bowl, making it difficult to bone. The meat at the center was inedibly raw — mushy, pink and translucent.

A few of the simplest dishes turned out to be the best. The tiny steamed Manila clams basking in a winey, cilantro-herbed broth were perfect. The seafood corn chowder was rich with sweet cream. The Cajun-spiced ruby-rare tuna was a fine rendition of what has become a modern standard, the thin slices singed at the edges with smoky spice.

The traditional fish and chips was airy and crisp. My two-pound steamed lobster, served with an ear of sweet white corn, also was properly done. And though 90 percent of the menu is seafood, there is a small selection of prime meats worth considering. Our New York strip steak was excellent.

But the giant shrimp cocktails were inconsistent. The first was dry and chewy; the second, a picture of succulent luxury. And the crabcakes took a turn for the worse the second time I ordered them, the crust thick to the point of toughness and the stuffing oddly fishy.

It was a sign of things to come. The stuffed "baby" flounder was so small that it could have been an infant and the fillets so overcooked that they disintegrated on the fork. The grey sole was so encased in Parmesan bread crumbs that it looked like two potato pancakes ringed by a drizzle of butter sauce too wimpy to do justice to the insinuation of indulgence.

Asian ingredients have made headway on virtually every mainstream-restaurant menu, and McCormick & Schmick's is no exception. A soy-based ginger-ponzu sauce added interest to seared Chilean sea bass, but the accompanying jasmine rice managed to be both gluey and crunchy.

A coconut milk-based curry sauce lent sweet and spicy intrigue to a perfectly grilled catfish fillet. Yet the same sauce with steamed mussels was heavy-handed and syrupy sweet.

The desserts weren't knockouts, either. Eating the brioche bread pudding, waterlogged with custard, was like spooning through slippery soup. The fruit inside the three-berry cobbler was sticky, and its tartness made me wince.

The best finales were an upside-down apple pie topped with a walnut caramel crust and a key lime pie that had the citrus snap and cracker crust down pat. But they couldn't salvage a meal that had lost its grip on a great concept and a lustrous room.

Granted, McCormick & Schmick's is a 35-restaurant chain, and many chains focus more on costs than on quality control. But other corporate restaurants that have branched into Philadelphia, including Capital Grille at Broad and Chestnut and Devon Seafood Grill (owned by Houlihan's) on Rittenhouse Square, have proven that chains can achieve excellence or at least consistent high quality.

No doubt, a chain's buying power enables it to offer the ingredients of luxury for less. But if the cooking can't match the artifice, even the best "value buzz" will eventually fade away.

Craig LaBan's e-mail address is claban@phillynews.com.

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