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Fish Tales 

Another chain gets its hooks into Cleveland.

Fresh berries and toasted hazelnuts splash up the flavor of Northwest-Style Salmon Sauté. - WALTER NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Fresh berries and toasted hazelnuts splash up the flavor of Northwest-Style Salmon Sauté.

It's a chilly Thursday night in Beachwood, ground zero in Northeast Ohio's chain-restaurant explosion. Bahama Breeze, Cheesecake Factory, P.F. Chang's . . . the list is as long as the Friday-night wait at the nearby Red Robin. Now add McCormick & Schmick's, the Portland, Oregon-based seafood house that opened at Beachwood Place Mall in September. To date, the company has more than 50 outposts nationwide, including sites in Columbus, Dayton, and Cincinnati.

Unlike many of its chain-linked brethren, M & S accepts reservations, and woe to those who don't have them tonight: The wait for an unreserved table is at least an hour, and that's in an 8,000-square-foot facility with seating for 275. (For comparison, Tremont's Lolita seats 60, counting bar stools.)

Sure, the restaurant is new, convenient for shoppers, and promises the always-popular "fresh seafood and fish" — a not-so-easy catch in this non-oceanic town. So a certain buzz can be expected. Yet when locals stand in line for an hour to dine at a corporate-owned eatery, is it any wonder that independent restaurant owners cry themselves to sleep?

Still, both general manager David Walker and executive chef Doug Fulton are Clevelanders with extensive experience at spots like Charlie's Crab, Blake's Seafood, and Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse. Together, they've gone a long way toward customizing the restaurant to suit regional sensibilities, including keeping prices mostly moderate and supporting local vendors whenever possible.

For us, two visits net mixed results. Free valet parking during dinner hour is an immediate hit. The decor — a clubby construct of wood, velvet-draped booths, art-deco lighting, and botanical prints — feels as cozy as any in town. And the full bar features a familiar wine list and a tempting roundup of 'tinis made with freshly squeezed juices. Less appealing is the heavy, diner-style china, complete with a thin green band around the rims — a strange choice for a spot where entrées can run as high as $35. And the contrast between dark wood tabletops, white cloth napkins, and flimsy paper place mats strikes us as odd. (The paper, Walker explains, is a concession to price control.)

The staff proves full of warm greetings, but service seems rushed and erratic. During the evening crush, our waitress is itching to take our order long before we've had a chance to study the massive menu. At lunch, our waiter up and vanishes in mid-service, sprinting into the parking lot after a diner who ditched his check. Splitting a salad? Don't expect staffers to do it for you — or even to volunteer an extra plate. And while our waitress is pleasant about replacing cups of stale, tepid decaf, the fresh stuff proves as tepid as the old.

As for the ever-changing menu, it's a whopper, featuring more than two dozen types of fresh fish, seafood, and shellfish (along with several cuts of beef). The fish is flown in daily and fashioned into 10 "lite" entrées and sandwiches, 13 apps, 10 soups and salads, 10 seafood "specialties," four "regional seafood celebrations," five grilled entrées, eight "traditional" entrées, and 10 steak and shellfish mains. Also available: six types of oysters on the half-shell. Adding to the workload, nearly everything is made in-house, including soups, salad dressings, and an array of desserts that includes an authentically good upside-down apple pie, with a perfectly flaky crust and a scoop of Mitchell Brothers' cinnamon ice cream.

Yet despite all the variety, showstoppers are scarce. Among the best preparations, we count the Northwest-Style Salmon Sauté, an unusual but ultimately tasty mélange of salmon chunks and button and shiitake mushrooms, bound in a light lobster-cream sauce, garnished with fresh raspberries and toasted hazelnuts, and settled on a bed of chopped asparagus. We also enjoy a starter of coconut shrimp: The five heavily breaded crustaceans are slightly greasy and rather bland, but the accompanying sweet dipping sauce and spicy tropical salsa ensure that we polish off every bite.

A dinner entrée of pistachio-crusted grouper features a thick, mild, and impeccably fresh filet. On the side, properly done asparagus spears and a single baby carrot add eye appeal, although a mound of mushy jasmine rice is without merit.

Generously sized salads include the Limestone (with hydroponically grown Bibb, crushed pink peppercorns, and an assertive creamy-Dijon dressing) and the salty Bacon & Blue Chop (with shredded iceberg, sliced green olives, crumbs of bacon, and specks of blue cheese). They seem fresh but unmemorable. Five sturdy fingers of breaded and fried cod, settled in a paper-lined basket along with traditional sides of creamy coleslaw and very good fresh-cut fries, make a satisfying tavern-style meal. But a duo of skimpy fish tacos inside soft flour tortillas proves too boring to even finish; on the side, more rice and a dollop of blandly seasoned black beans are equally unmotivating.

None of which is meant to prove that McCormick & Schmick's is a "bad" restaurant. Chain or indie, no place is perfect.

Just take the buzz with a grain of salt.

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