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Mitchell's Fish Market is floundering.

Hoisin-glazed yellowfin tuna looks good enough to eat. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Hoisin-glazed yellowfin tuna looks good enough to eat.

Some laud Columbus-based chef-restaurateur Cameron Mitchell as a marketing genius. Others hold him directly responsible for eviscerating the Capital City's independent restaurant scene. But no matter where one falls on the continuum, there's no denying that area food fans have long anticipated the first foray of his corporate juggernaut into the Cleveland dining market.

As president and founder of Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, the entrepreneur heads an ever-growing empire that currently consists of 20 assorted dining rooms, divided among nine different concepts (including Molly Woo's Asian Bistro, Martini Italian Bistro, and Cap City Diner & Bar), reigning over such second-tier dining towns as Columbus, Pittsburgh, Louisville, and Lansing. A few years back, the buzz held that the company was considering launching a Mitchell's Steakhouse on our own Playhouse Square, but those plans fizzled with downtown's wandering fortunes. But presumably, the emergence of suburban retail magnets such as Woodmere's recently renovated Eton Collection got the company's expansionary juices flowing again: Mitchell's Fish Market, "a seafood restaurant and bar," opened in the western end of the upscale mall in September.

Since then, lunch and dinner business has been predictably brisk. The daily menu is large and familiar, and, unlike the practice of many chain-restaurant counterparts, reservations are accepted. Still, if you happen to be among the handful of diners who haven't already made the pilgrimage, there's no need to pull on the UGGs and rush out into the elements: According to our recent visits, neither the food nor the service are particularly worth the hurry.

This is not to deny, of course, that there was once a time when the discovery of truly fresh, properly prepared seafood in the heartland was something to celebrate. Why, in those dark days, even Red Lobster seemed novel and exciting! Now, however, locally grown restaurants ranging from Sergio's on University Circle to Salmon Dave's Pacific Grille routinely dish up fresh, lush seafood, from exotic tambaqui ribs to the most succulent salmon south of Anchorage. So it doesn't seem unfair to expect that the new joint on the block --which debuted amid press-released promises to become "Greater Cleveland's premiere fresh seafood restaurant" -- should do it up right, delivering tasty little showstoppers that are interesting, delicious, and creatively prepared.

But no. Rather than cooking up sassy attention-grabbers, the kitchen, under executive chef Will Wadsworth, tends to turn out underseasoned, overcooked dishes that, at their best, seem tediously mundane. Consider the grilled grouper, for instance, one of the day's dozen "fresh catch" dinner offerings. Served with a veggie du jour (this day a colorful toss of well-prepared broccoli rabe, with strips of carrot, red pepper, and red onion), and smooth, snowy drifts of undistinguished "garlic" mashed potatoes, Mitchell's rendition of this usually moist, pearly fish was notably dry; worse, the flavor was entirely flat-footed, without any hint of culinary intervention, let alone inspiration. The same was true of a lunch-hour's cedar-roasted Atlantic salmon: Vaguely overcooked and bland, the unremarkable filet was something any halfway competent home cook could have improved upon through the judicious use of salt, pepper, and a pat of butter.

The situation improved with an entrée of pan-seared sea scallops, lightly dusted with crunchy cornmeal. Not only was the crisp-versus-creamy contrast delightful, but the dish also had a significantly more vibrant flavor profile than did other dishes, thanks to a sweet, creamy corn-and-poblano-pepper sauce and a side of moist, red-pepper-spiked risotto. But hoisin-glazed yellowfin tuna sent us back to the doldrums, this time not with blandness but with an overwhelming, soy-based saltiness that completely obliterated what should have been the tuna's natural assets.

While the long list of entrées also includes such "classics" as fish 'n' chips and such "specialties" as blackened mahi mahi, as well as lobster and crab dishes, three steaks, and a charbroiled free-range chicken breast, the kitchen still manages to crank out a vast array of starters, encompassing nearly two dozen soups, salads, apps, and raw-bar offerings. Once again, though, few of them were keepers. From the raw bar, for instance, a "jumbo" lump-crabmeat cocktail contained about two-thirds of a cup of properly shell-less blue-crab meat, but lacked the succulent sex appeal we expect from good-quality crab; in fact, the thick, sweet-chili dipping sauce, served on the side, was the most interesting part of this yawner. Much the same can be said about the five beer-boiled crustaceans in the shrimp cocktail: Sort of limp, vaguely dry, they tasted pretty much like what you would find on a grocery-store shrimp tray.

A cup of salmon-colored lobster bisque -- light, creamy, but not gummy, with a dainty sweetness and hints of salty seas -- turned out to be a much better bet. And among the à la carte salads, the generously sized house toss, with mixed greens, chopped dates, plenty of toasted pine nuts, and a honeyed whisper of poppyseed vinaigrette, was bracingly fresh and, at $4.75, seemed like a good value.

Not so the beefsteak-tomato salad, though -- a misfire that not only pointed to the kitchen's culinary shortcomings, but also revealed our stern, middle-aged waiter to be a first-class pain in the neck. (Of course, we had gotten off on the wrong foot almost immediately, when he snapped at me for asking whether the catch-of-the-day Tazmanian (sic) salmon was wild or farm-raised. "That's not the issue!" he barked, as he launched into a drawn-out story about water temperatures and body mass.) His ill-fated recommendation that we try the beefsteak-tomato salad came later, though, after he overheard us discussing starters. This being winter, and this being Ohio, we were understandably reluctant to order anything made with fresh (i.e., anemic hothouse) tomatoes. But in the name of consumer research, we agreed to give it a go. Long story short, the thick half-moons of out-of-season toms were as pale, hard, and tasteless as we had feared. When our waiter stopped by to check on us, I couldn't help mentioning that fact. "Oh, no," he admonished, like an uncle scolding a naughty niece. "That's a beefsteak tomato; that's the way it's supposed to be!"

Of course, as any backyard gardener will tell you, that's a load of cow manure that could only be spread by someone who's never sunk his teeth into a fresh-off-the-vine tomato. In his defense, though, the waiter did deduct the cost of the inedible salad from our dinner bill -- which, incidentally, still amounted to a hefty $92 for two, with tax, tip, and two glasses of wine included.

Service snags continued. During a busy lunch-hour visit, for example, the harried host gave our party of three a chilly reception, checking our name off the reservation book, shuttling us aside, and then forgetting about us entirely. After ten minutes of watching him seat other, later-arriving parties, we finally flagged him down again, only to have him act as though he had never laid eyes upon us before that very moment!

At both lunch and dinner, pacing was erratic, with long, tiresome waits between courses, especially between apps and entrées. As a result, that weekday lunch dragged out across nearly two-and-a-half hours. Admittedly, we weren't feeling any pressure to rush back to the office; however, midday guests with real jobs may as well forget about ordering dessert.

Which would be a shame, actually, since pastry chef Lisa Schaber's oversized sweeties seemed to be the one course worth sticking around for. Warm, dense bread pudding, for instance, topped with a thick fog of real whipped cream and a length of roasted banana, and served on a deep pool of rich crème anglaise zigzagged with caramel and assertively flavored with rum, was flawlessly indulgent. And a towering wedge of sharkfin pie, with thick strata of butter-fudge ice cream separated by thin deposits of peanut-butter-and-fudge sauces, topped with whipped cream and chopped peanuts, on a crushed Oreo crust, could easily send a party of four happily spiraling into a sweet, sugar-induced stupor.

Still, for a restaurant vowing to make waves with its seafood and service, "good desserts" alone don't exactly tip the scales in its favor.

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