Restaurant News & Reviews

Fresh fish aplenty at McCormick & Schmick's

On paper, the story of McCormick & Schmick's is a dramatic tale of numbers. It started with two guys, Bill McCormick and Doug Schmick, who opened a seafood eatery in Portland, Ore., in 1979. Just shy of McCormick & Schmick's 30th anniversary, there are now more than 80 restaurants in the nationwide chain.

The Raleigh location, the first in the Triangle, opened in July in Crabtree Valley Mall. With seating for more than 300, it's a big restaurant by any standard. But the dining room manages to achieve a cozy, clubby feel, thanks to high-backed booths, mahogany columns and partition walls, tasteful nautical prints and soft lighting from Arts and Crafts pendant lights.

The numbers on the menu are even more impressive. At the top of the daily, changing bill of fare is the "Fresh List," detailing that day's delivery of fresh seafood -- at least 24 varieties, in my experience, from all over the Western hemisphere. These are translated into dozens of preparations as diverse as the seafood's origins. On a given night, the offering might include grilled wild coho salmon from the Sitka River in Alaska, pecan-crusted North Carolina catfish with maple bourbon butter, whole live Maine lobster, beer-battered Massachusetts cod fish and chips, and South Carolina swordfish "casino" stuffed with blue crab from the Sea of Cortez. The selection of oysters on the half shell typically includes half a dozen varieties.

By and large, these abstract numbers add up to concrete satisfaction. The swordfish casino is a luxurious variation on a classic theme, the meaty fish well-matched with a stuffing of crabmeat, roasted peppers and bacon. The coho salmon, rich as it is, doesn't upstage the delicate Chilean sea bass that accompanies it in a wild, mixed-grill offering, along with a massive lump crab cake. A broiled seafood platter serves up a New England feast of cod, shrimp, sea scallops, oysters, crab cake and red potatoes. Alaskan black cod, served over udon noodles with a steaming miso broth poured over it tableside, is a delight for all the senses.

Appetizer options are, for the most part, similarly rewarding. Flash-fried calamari are tender with a light batter, served with a trio of dipping sauces: cocktail, horseradish marmalade and sherry aioli. Jumbo shrimp cocktail lives up to its name, serving up a quartet of fat beauties on the rim of a cocktail glass, with a house-made cocktail sauce.

And a cup of Maryland crab soup was so loaded with crabmeat recently that a couple of jumbo lumps peeked out of the top of the tomato-based broth.

When a dish fails to live fully up to its promise, the fault doesn't lie with the seafood -- which, in my experience, has been invariably fresh-tasting -- but with inconsistent execution. The crust on pan-fried Chesapeake oysters can be delicately crisp one night, soggy the next. Likewise, all those precious lumps of crabmeat in the crab cakes might be beautifully preserved, or broken up by heavy-handed mixing. Steamed black mussels are fine, but if they're on the small side, they can end up being overcooked.

The wine list racks up some pretty solid numbers, too, in the form of 119 wines, 28 of them available by the glass or eight-ounce mini carafe. Beer drinkers choose from eight brews on tap and a dozen or so by the bottle. Cocktails, expertly mixed with premium liquors and fresh-squeezed juices, cover the spectrum from classic Old Fashioned to cutting-edge Basil Grape Refresher.

I didn't count the members of the wait staff, but their numbers and training are sufficient to provide courteous and generally efficient service. Occasional lapses are minor and invariably the result of a packed dining room.

Which brings me to the last important number you need to know about McCormick & Schmick's: 881-7848. That's the phone number, which you'll probably want to call for reservations. The restaurant welcomes walk-ins, but you may find yourself facing a wait of half an hour or more during peak dining hours. Four months after opening, McCormick & Schmick's is still packing them in.