Diner: Neptunian Dining

Mitchell's has a practiced formula for seafood and attentive service

The location of Mitchell's Fish Market is paradoxical and disconcerting: 50 feet away you can pay homage to fish from the world over at Newport Aquarium, then sit down at Mitchell's to eat them. Hmmm. Brilliant marketing.

My companion and I are trying to quiet that thought as we enter Mitchell's on a weeknight, but the first thing to greet you in the entrance is the overwhelming smell of fish and a counter filled with filets and steaks for retail sale. Oh, well, I just need to laugh at this point.

The restaurant is packed with holiday shoppers and parties (indeed, one whole table of 10 wearing red sweaters), so we have a 20-minute wait in the bar with a disk that lights up like Close Encounters of the Third Kind when your table is ready. The bar is also jammed full with diners and drinkers, "... spanked on a Tuesday!" as the bartender loudly declares to no one and everyone.

We agree with his suggestion to have an appetizer with our wine while we wait. Although there is ample choice of fresh shellfish such as peel-n-eat shrimp, four different kinds of oysters and clams on the half shell for starters, we opt for Salt-N-Peppa Rare Tuna with wasabi vinaigrette ($8.50). An oval platter with a timbale of sticky rice wrapped in thin slices of rare tuna is set before us.

Light and delicious, the preparation uses just enough wasabi vinaigrette so as not to overpower the tuna; it's topped with pickled ginger, like an oversized portion of sushi.

Just as we are finishing, our hand-held spaceship lights up and the young hostess simultaneously appears. "How was the bar?" she asks, leading us to a requested window seat. Strange wording, but I think I know what she means. "The bar was tasty," I reply, because I'm sure she'll know what I mean.

"Great!" she enthuses.

On our way through the large dining area, we pass the central, open kitchen with its display of more fresh cuts of fish, as well as a crowded lobster tank. The large fish case could benefit from a bit of display design — perhaps black trays to showcase the colors of the fish. Its whiteness and brightness is stark and unappealing. Our city view booth is very roomy, but we have to crane our necks to fully enjoy the view over a faux bead board halfway up. Maybe it was designed that way to eliminate the view of river traffic, but I think longer windows would be more aesthetically pleasing. The restaurant's decor is ho-hum corporate: dark green and off white with the aforementioned faux bead board. There are touches of nautical kitsch, such as painted portholes. My guest, who is from Boston, says it reminds him of the large-scale seafood houses that inundate that area.

Even though the dining room is filled, there is barely a wait for service. Upon the server's recommendation, we order Marinated Beefsteak Tomatoes ($5.50) for our salad course, Chilean Sea Bass "Shang Hai Style" ($17.95) and MFM Specialty Trio ($18.95) for our entrées. The salad comes already split with three wedges each of tomatoes marinated in a creamy cabernet vinaigrette with crumbled bleu cheese, a touch of spinach and red onions. Although the tomatoes didn't quite have the flavor associated with garden beefsteaks, at least they were ripe and the salad as a whole was quite good.

Entrées were generally good, too, but needed a little tweaking. The Chilean Sea Bass came steamed over sticky rice in a sauce made of soy, rice wine, ginger and scallions circled with sautéed spinach. Even though the fish was perfectly steamed, its delicate flavor was buried by the strong sauce. The Specialty Trio consisted of Cedar Plank Salmon, Chipotle BBQ Mahi Mahi and Hot and Sour Swordfish served with Garlic Mashed Potatoes, green beans and mushrooms. A very nice combination with only the salmon being overcooked and uninteresting. Everything else, including the vegetable, was well-prepared and tasty. For dessert our server suggested we pass over the house specialty of "Sharkfin Pie," "good if you are sitting down to watch The Practice," he claims, insisting that we try instead the Meyer Lemon Cheesecake with Fresh Blueberries ($4.75). We loved the texture of the cheesecake — more chiffonlike than most — but the lemon flavor was more of a hint than distinct. The Chocolate Toffee Crunch Torte ($4.50) was heavy and pre-fab tasting. We ate two bites and left the rest.

Throughout our courses, our server checks on our well-being several times. In fact, just about everybody stops by at some time during our two-hour stay: Managers as well as servers all inquire about our experience. Even the host asks, on my way to the bathroom (and on the return trip, five minutes later), how everything is.

After (no kidding) 14 inquiries, I actually thought I had been recognized as a reviewer, but in a phone interview later with a manager, she assured me it was protocol. She added that MFM's mission is to make "raving fans" out of every guest. I wouldn't qualify myself as a "raving fan," but with a nice view and Neptunian location, I can see MFM doing very well on the growing Kentucky riverfront.

Go: Newport On The Levee

Newport, Ky.

Call: 859-291-7451

Hours: Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Reservations accepted.

Prices: Moderate to expensive

Payment: Cash and all major credit cards

Red Meat Alternatives: Hey, it's a fish house!

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