Scaling New Heights 

C'mon in, the seafood's fine at Salmon Dave's Pacific Grille.

My current favorite meal? Wrap your tastebuds around this image: Take an extra-thick, boneless filet of faultlessly fresh Bay of Fundy salmon and marinate it in a zippy blend of soy sauce and fresh ginger.

Next, grill it over a mesquite fire until a thin, crisp crust of seared juices develops, but take care that the rare interior remains exquisitely moist.

Set the fragrant, sizzling filet on a buttery mound of roasted spaghetti squash, and top it with a mountain of deeply caramelized, sweet-and-sharp Walla Walla onions. For a little extra crunch and eye appeal, toss on a few cubes of chopped green onion and red pepper.

Complete the plate with three long spears of well-trimmed steamed asparagus, a pile of flavorful "dirty" rice, and a big wedge of fresh lemon cunningly wrapped in a cheesecloth "bib," and serve it with a cool pour of 1996 Tessera Chardonnay.

Then hand me a fork and stand back.
Not that you have to cook for me. You can just invite me to dinner at Salmon Dave's Pacific Grille in Rocky River, and let Chef Matt Gambatese do what he does best: turn out some of the region's most delicious seafood.

Business partners and buddies George Schindler, Kaye Ameen, Michael McDaniel, and David R. Hale obviously know how to run a successful restaurant. Under the name "Hospitality Restaurants," the foursome also operates the popular Blue Point Grille in the Warehouse District and the Cabin Club Steakhouse in Westlake. They opened Salmon Dave's in 1993, and diners apparently still can't get enough of the luscious seafood, steaks, and poultry that make up the modest menu. On a recent Saturday night, the wait for hopeful diners without reservations was two hours long.

Despite the capacity crowd and constant turnover, Gamba-tese and his sous chef, Matt Hoegler, scarcely missed a beat. Salmon, swordfish, steaks, and pasta were all perfectly prepared. Even such temperamental tidbits as grilled shrimp and blackened scallops came to the table hot and flavorful, yet not one whit overcooked or dry.

Meanwhile, in the front of the house, service from the cadre of blue-jeans-and-white-shirt-clad servers was attentive and personal. The relaxed atmo-sphere--sort of a rustic Pacific Northwest saloon motif--almost made us forget we were paying sophisticated prices for this top-notch food.

We started our meal with a cup of heavenly lobster bisque and an appetizer sampler that included four blackened scallops, three grilled shrimp in a thick, sweet raspberry barbecue sauce, and a small serving of battered and fried calamari.

Inside their coating of fiery spices, the fat scallops were full of flavor and tender as custard. They arrived on a little scoop of dirty rice, along with a tiny cup of spicy remoulade seasoned with cayenne, paprika, and capers.

As good as the scallops were, they were shown up by our skewerful of raspberry-sauced barbecued shrimp, so perfectly done that they actually "popped" when we bit into them. The dish also included some equally crisp grilled water chestnuts and arrived balanced on a mound of sticky rice.

Considering the perfection of the scallops and shrimp, we were surprised by the tough, chewy calamari. But the rubbery rings of overdone squid turned out to be the only major disappointment of the evening.

The star of the starters, however, was the thick lobster bisque, made with cream, sherry, and chunks of sweet claw meat. The velvety soup was a lovely shade of salmon-pink and was one of the best--and richest--we've encountered.

Salmon Dave's salads come a la carte, and we sampled both the house salad--a mixture of tender greens, sliced cucumbers, out-of-season Roma tomatoes, and a handful of toasted sunflower seeds in a big, sweet honey-lemon-Chardonnay dressing--and the Caesar Salad, with croutons and anchovies, in a Parmesan cheese dressing. While both were acceptable, next time we may try something a little more exotic, like the chargrilled portobello mushroom salad, with mixed greens, toasted pecans, provolone, and tomatoes in a balsamic vinaigrette.

Of course, our dinner entrees included that incredible grilled salmon. It was every bit as good as I had remembered it from a previous lunch, when I had feasted on it with orzo in place of the dirty rice. While purists might consider grilled onions superfluous on such perfect salmon, the onions' tender texture and pungent sweetness made a mouthwatering contrast with the juicy, soy-and-ginger-scented fish.

In a nod to the Cabin Club's reputation for red meat, we also ordered a mesquite-grilled strip steak, topped with Maryland crab meat and lobster cream sauce. The classic combination of robust rare beef and nutty, sweet crab did not disappoint us. The dish was served with creamy mashed potatoes and more of that crisp asparagus and buttery shredded squash. To accompany it, we chose a big, spicy 1997 Mont Pellier Merlot from the large, annotated wine list, which includes plenty of moderately priced vintages by the bottle and the glass.

A mixed grill of swordfish, salmon, and herb-buttered shrimp stacked on dirty rice was also a delight. The large salmon filet was thin and not as meltingly tender as the one in our first entree, but it still had plenty of rich, grilled flavor. The smaller filet of mesquite-grilled swordfish was even better: moister and very meaty tasting. But best of all were the three buttery grilled shrimp, which again were remarkably crisp, juicy, and suffused with the fresh scent of the sea.

Our lobster fan chose a big bowl of angel-hair pasta tossed with chunks of pink lobster claw and body meat, quartered artichoke hearts, and fresh spinach in a rich, but not overwhelming, lobster cream sauce. The dish was an ideal blend of tastes and textures and was well-complemented by the loaf of warm bread and oregano butter that came with our meals.

If tiramisu, creme brulee, and flourless chocolate cakes disappeared overnight, I believe that fully one-half of the restaurants in Cleveland would suddenly find themselves dessertless. But not Salmon Dave's, where, on this night, our choices included Raspberry Swirl Cheesecake, Chocolate Hazelnut Crunch, Bananas Foster, a dense bread pudding, and beignets with ice cream and fresh berries. The first two items were "imports" from the kitchen at Blue Point; the last three were made in-house.

The huge rectangle of heavy bread pudding was studded with raisins and nuts, doused with a bourbon-flavored butter sauce, and served warm. It was, one of our diners observed, like a first-rate fruitcake without the attitude.

The Chocolate Hazelnut Crunch was a modest wedge of rich, absolutely smooth chocolate mousse with a thin, crunchy crust of toasted nuts, served on a puddle of espresso-flavored cream sauce. The treat was rich but subtle and not cloying.

Our Bananas Foster--sauteed banana slices and warm caramel sauce over a scoop of vanilla ice cream--was also tasty. Unfortunately, by the time it came to the table, the hot fruit had reduced most of the ice cream to liquid.

But it was the beignets--a New Orleans specialty similar to a hole-less doughnut--that won my heart. Although a reported kitchen catastrophe delayed the dessert's arrival by five minutes or so, it was worth the wait. The two powdered-sugar-coated fried cakes came to the table steaming hot, crisp on the outside but sweet and buttery within. They were sided by a generous scoop of creamy vanilla ice cream, a bountiful serving of fresh blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries, and a pool of praline creme Anglaise, presenting numerous options for palate-pleasing combinations of flavors and tastes. Berries and ice cream? Beignets and cream? Berries and beignets? Cream sauce and ice cream?

With bait like this, Salmon Dave's will never have to go fishin' for enthusiastic diners.

Salmon Dave's Pacific Grille. 19015 Old Lake Road, Rocky River. 440-331-2739. Lunch Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dinner Sunday-Thursday, 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until 10:30 p.m.

Appetizer Sampler $16.95

House Salad $3.75

Caesar Salad $3.95

Lobster Bisque(cup) $4.25

Crab Topped Steak $21.95

Chargrilled Ginger-Soy Salmon $18.95

Lobster Pasta $18.95

Mixed Grill $26.95

Beignets $4.95

Bananas Foster $5.25

Bread Pudding $3.95

Chocolate Hazelnut Crunch $5.95


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