Fresh Fish

Twelve years down the road, Salmon Dave's is thriving.

Salmon Dave's Pacific Grille 19015 Lake Road, Rocky River 440-331-2739. 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday
Salmon Dave does right by his tuna, and so will you. - Walter  Novak
Salmon Dave does right by his tuna, and so will you.
Twelve can be a good age for a restaurant -- old enough to know what it's about, but young enough that it has not yet crumbled into quiet mediocrity. And since so much of what passes for mass appeal is simply the frisson of novelty, any place that endures for a dozen years is likely to be doing something right.

Take Salmon Dave's Pacific Grille. Established in 1993, the casually upscale eatery has become a Rocky River institution; and if the folks who dare drop by sans reservations on a Saturday night don't always face a two-hour wait to snare a seat nowadays, at least the dining room and long, narrow barroom have remained noisy, lively, and festive spots to chow down on fresh fish and well-prepared seafood.

Of course, when small, locally based Hospitality Restaurants (which also operates Blue Point Grille in the Warehouse District, Thirsty Parrot in Gateway, and Cabin Club in Westlake) launched the spot, most Northeast Ohioans still thought fresh fish meant the Friday-night fry at the VFW hall, and seafood -- hundreds of miles and who knew how many days from an actual sea -- could be a risky proposition. Now, of course, there is scarcely an upper-tier kitchen in the area that doesn't cook up a solid collection of grouper, halibut, salmon, and tuna; and sushi, shrimp, scallops, and lobster have become downright ubiquitous.

Still, Salmon Dave's has built an enviable rep on a relatively modest menu of straightforward dishes (including, but not limited to, three versions of salmon, a handful of steaks, and a justifiably famous lobster bisque); pegged at moderate prices ($18 to $24 for most basic entrées); and served by efficient staffers in a playfully handsome, mostly kitsch-free setting that brings to mind a saloon in the 1920s Pacific Northwest. As a result, it seems to occupy the rarefied air at the nexus of "destination dining" and "neighborhood hangout." And it has profited accordingly.

Beyond simply dishing up generally good food at reasonable prices, though, the restaurant's president and operating partner, George Schindler, has made certain that it keeps up with the times. These days, that means putting a distinctly Asian accent on the menu, with dishes like shrimp pad thai, "Chinatown" lettuce wraps, and panko-crumbed calamari in Asian barbecue sauce; adding a handful of tapas-like "small plates" for grazers; and offering an engaging wine program, built around knowledgeable staffers and an impressively large, international wine list that emphasizes not only the expected whites, but a relatively extensive, au courant assortment of pinot noirs.

The decor, too, got an update in 2003, with new seating arrangements in the main dining room and art-glass-shaded halogens replacing the former brass lamps. Together with the building's exposed brick archways, a striking black-and-white mosaic floor, and bare wooden tabletops (set, nonetheless, with cream-colored cloth napkins, substantial flatware, and featherweight crystal stemware), today's ambiance is a comfortable balance of upscale and relaxed.

Much the same can be said about many of the dishes coming out of Salmon Dave's kitchen, under the supervision of chef Cesar Echeverria. Take a "small plate" starter of ahi-tuna sashimi, one of the most venerable dishes on the menu. History notwithstanding, it's an up-to-date killer, with sheer folds of scarcely seared tuna that evaporate on the tongue like cotton candy, leaving behind impressions of sweetness and velvet; served with chopsticks and the requisite wasabi and pickled ginger, as well as a petite mound of black-sesame-seeded sticky rice and a cool cucumber-and-red-pepper salad dressed in a rice-wine vinaigrette, the tidbit performed its first-course duties like a trooper, revving up our taste buds while barely denting our appetite.

Dave's annual Crab Fest winds down on July 31, but if you hurry, you may still score a first-course bowl of creamy, South Carolina-style she-crab soup. Dense, dark, and piqued with threads of crabmeat and a high-octane blend of paprika, cayenne, and Old Bay, it has the type of transcendent goodness that's been known to make a diner hunker down and glare, the better to fend off companions' ill-advised attempts to steal "just a little taste!"

Next time, though, we may skip the à la carte salads, including the usual iceberg-lettuce "wedge," here suffocated beneath a cheery pink blanket of tart Thousand Island dressing. And though there was nothing wrong with a salad of mesclun greens, garnished with a few bits of roasted walnuts and a dried cherry or two, and crowned with an ample, golden disk of crumb-crusted, pan-fried goat cheese, it was really too large for a first course. Probably, we should have asked to split it; but for the diner who ordered it, having to choose between spoiling her appetite and sending fully half the salad back to the kitchen seemed a sorry choice to make.

On the other hand, there were no leftovers to speak of from most of the entrées we sampled. Among them were the simple, elegant combo of pan-seared shrimp and scallops, settled on a pouf of mashed potatoes, sided with snappy green beans, and ringed with a lush roasted-garlic beurre blanc; the Mediterranean-style sautéed salmon filet, topped with black-olive tapenade, presented on pesto-infused mashers, and drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil; and the mini surf and turf, a mouthwatering match-up of plump filet medallion and ultra-savory lobster tail, each stroked with a complementary sauce and paired with mashed potatoes and slightly overcooked asparagus.

One dud, however, was the signature ginger-soy salmon: a generously sized but now significantly overcooked salmon steak, with a stridently fishy flavor that even the gregarious soy-ginger glaze could not disguise. No complaints about the slender green beans on the side. But a mound of short-grained house rice was flat, flavorless, and dry; and while a tangle of deeply caramelized sweet onion threads on top added a savory, jam-like note, the homely hunk of raw ginger root that lurked within them was not only unsettling to gaze upon, but would have made for a nasty surprise, had we bitten into it. We took this unfortunate dish especially hard, since the soy-glazed salmon had been our absolute fave during visits back in 1999.

Happily, a jolly-sounding selection of desserts, crafted by sous-chef Justin Kurth, buoyed our spirits -- seasonal goodies like berries and cream, raspberry-sauced crème brûlée, and flourless chocolate torte trimmed in fresh fruits. For berry lovers, a buttery tart shell filled with silky pastry cream, topped with prettily arranged raspberries, and finished with a scoop of Woo City's rich malted-vanilla ice cream was a slice of heaven; as for chocolate cravings, the molten cake -- like a Scharfenberg milk-chocolate bar left out in the sun -- went down easy as pie, thanks to more of that vanilla ice cream and a scattering of blackberries and strawberries.

No wonder so many diners have remained sweet on Salmon Dave's. Despite its, um, maturity, this joint still thinks young.

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