Fruit of the deep

Jun 4, 2008 at 12:00 am

One good thing about the Sea Grille is that it avoids a nautical theme. The walls are a soothing sea green, and two large and fanciful sculptures of sea horses overlook the dining room. But no anchors, no knotted ropes, no hearty cap'ns. It's the denizens of the deep we're subtly reminded of, not the boat.

If I have a complaint about the Sea Grille, it's the sweetness and softness of the food. The clientele is pretty mature, on average, but not so mature that they need to gum their food. Both a whitefish and a rainbow trout one evening were, not mushy, but awfully yielding. Rice lacked any al dente challenge. Salmon, shrimp, perch and even pasta were firmer, however, so the trick may be in the ordering.

As to sweetness, on my first night I was so sugar-surfeited that I had to order a sour cherry dessert as a respite. Whitefish with a hazelnut crust and Frangelico butter smelled like maple syrup. (Frangelico is a hazelnut liqueur with plenty of sugar added.) Rainbow trout with almonds and pecans was equally saccharine. Luckily, the mashed sweet potatoes that came with each dish had been left to nature and to butter and were, though sweet, less so than the main course.

One of the Sea Grille's claims to fame is its wood grill, but the dishes my party ordered were so gussied up that no wood essence was detectable in any of the fish dishes. If I went again, I'd request something plainer (not on the menu) and ask the chef to hold the sugar. As it is, the regular sea and lake items all have a lot going on, such as Parmesan-crusted whitefish, ahi tuna with Asian peanut vinaigrette, crab cakes with roasted red pepper aioli, and perch piccata in a white wine and lemon butter sauce. That lake perch was pretty tasty, but of lemon butter, not of perch. Wood-grilled apple cider salmon, on the other hand, was just salmon, and perhaps that's a good thing.

My favorite entrée was shrimp scampi over linguini, perhaps because the dominant taste was garlic. Fresh tomatoes and Parmesan melded well, and if the shrimp were the large, rubbery kind, that's what you get everywhere these days. (Read about the prognosis for shrimp farming if you want to get depressed.) There was lots of rich sauce for sopping up with the crusty (not soft) warm bread that's baked on premises.

All the entrées are accompanied by good, crisp, very buttery vegetables, including some excellent squash. Although seafood is the main attraction, meat eaters aren't slighted. One night a pound of steak was a special, and there's rack of lamb, duckling and brisket on the regular menu, as well as pastas, pizzas and even a salmon Reuben.

You can get lobster or shrimp pizza, a tofu stir fry or Brie-tomatoes-olive oil-basil over pasta. "Lobster mac and cheese" sounds original, but I was afraid the lobster would be crowded out by the white cheddar. Seafood restaurateurs: Don't be afraid of fish! People who come to a seafood restaurant and don't want to taste fish should ... go to another restaurant.

For starters, we had smoked salmon with crisp (not soft) potato latkes. Sour cream and applesauce are the traditional accompaniments; in my opinion, a more home-made-tasting applesauce, would have been a nice touch. A Manhattan clam chowder was well-spiced, with a warm, rich tomato flavor.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with the Manhattan chowder, as opposed to the New England type, the chewy little clam bits (often compared to erasers) didn't seem to add anything of themselves to the mix.

Mahi mahi tacos were constructed of batter-fried fish, shredded lettuce and a mild chili cream on flour tortillas — fine but not memorable. (Mahi mahi, you may know, is the Hawaiian term for dolphin fish, but menu-writers avoid it so that folks won't think they're eating Flipper.)

As to desserts, the above-mentioned sour cherry crisp was good and sour. A chocolate silk mousse torte was as nut-encrusted as the entrées, but a lot more solid and dense. The Sea Grille has a long wine list, mostly quite affordable. A sizable patio shielded by evergreens will be a pleasure if summer ever arrives this year.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].