McCormick & Schmick's
Go: 21 East Fifth St., Downtown
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Prices: Moderate to expensive
Payment: MasterCard and Visa
Red Meat Alternatives: Lots of fish, plus a small salad menu
Accessibility: Fully accessible
The walls of McCormick & Schmick's, Fountain Square's new seafood restaurant, are almost completely covered with antique prints of fish. Fish stare glumly from every available square foot of wall space. There are slate-gray slabs of sea fish; brown trout with their colorful speckles; and a thick-shouldered salmon with its hooked and toothy bottom jaw. My dining companion and I sit beneath the myopic glare of a green, torpedo-shaped Northern pike, and I begin to wonder if we're supposed to order from a menu or just point at the wall. Eventually, I decide to try the long gray fish on the wall opposite me, hanging above a woman whose eyeglasses are a bit too big for her face.
As luck would have it, the moment I make my selection, a server arrives at the table with real paper menus. At McCormick & Schmick's, which opened its latest in a national chain of restaurants last November, the menus are printed twice daily to reflect the freshest seafood available.
For appetizers we select the Flash Fried Calamari with a trio of dipping sauces ($11.90) and a Small Sampler of Oysters on the Half Shell ($11.95).
To accompany these, we choose a bottle of Camelot Cabernet Sauvignon ($22) from the extensive wine list, which includes more than 100 wines by the bottle and more than 20 wines available either by the glass or bottle.
Service is attentive and, despite the noise and clamor of a weeknight dinner rush, our appetizers appear in front of us quickly. The calamari is served with a sherry mayonnaise, a cocktail sauce and a horseradish dip that add wonderfully to the dish without overcoming the sweet and delicate flavor of the white flesh of the calamari.
Our sample plate of oysters arrives as six, rough-edged shells of different sizes arranged on a bed of crushed ice. Their pale, fleshy insides glisten wetly and are served with a fennel ginger sauce and a cocktail sauce. The oysters come from distant places like Oregon and British Columbia, from Baynes Sound in Canada and Tomales Bay, Calif. The Oysterville oyster, from Willapa Bay, Wash., looks more like a rock than shellfish and feels like one, too. I'm barely able to fit it into the palm of my hand; its flesh is creamy and intensely flavorful.
The dining area is busy with downtown corporate-types and we seem to be the only two diners who didn't come here directly from work. We listen in on conversations — with a crowd as noisy and boisterous as this one, it's almost impossible not to. The man at the table next to me enjoyed a recent business trip to South Korea; the woman with the oversized eyeglasses seems displeased by something and is complaining.
We follow our appetizers with cups of New England Clam Chowder ($3.60) and fish stew ($4.25), both of which are delicious and satisfying. Our waiter is helpful and obliging. Like the rest of the staff at McCormick & Schmick's, he wears a short white jacket, which resembles the jackets worn by railway staff in bad period dramas. Perhaps coincidentally — or perhaps not — the polished wooden furnishings and the brass fittings resemble the railway carriages of yesteryear.
For entrees we select the Atlantic Salmon ($18.90), oven-roasted on a cedar plank, with northern berry sauce, and Swordfish ($20.85) with sun-dried tomato butter and roasted potatoes. The salmon is prepared simply and is delicious and creamy, accompanied by asparagus and mashed potatoes. The tart and slightly acidic berry sauce makes for a good pairing, cutting well through the rich flavor of the salmon. We're disappointed by the swordfish, however: It's a little tough, cut just a little too thick and cooked a little too long.
For dessert we share a sampler plate that includes a mini-bread pudding with cinnamon ice cream, a crème brulee and a triple berry cobbler with a sugar cookie crust ($8.95). Each of the three desserts is rewarding and perfectly sized to provide a treat without causing diabetes at the same time.
We finish our wine and ask for boxes for our leftovers, but a few days later neither of us has eaten them.
Ultimately, the atmosphere at McCormick & Schmick's is a little wanting. Before visiting, I read a posting on a local blog in which someone complained that dining at McCormick & Schmick's locations in other cities is a little characterless and dull: Eating there feels like dining in Topeka, Kan., or Spokane, Wash., or somewhere similarly anonymous.
I would venture that for people from other cities, eating in Cincinnati's McCormick's location is like eating in Topeka and Spokane, too. We need our downtown restaurants to really own the spaces they occupy. McCormick & Schmick's, as yet, does not.
There are restaurants in town that have an atmosphere I don't particularly enjoy, but the food is good enough that I go anyway. I don't feel the same about McCormick and Schmick's. As with so many other restaurants, parts of our meal were intensely satisfying, but other parts of it were bland and forgettable. Coming in at around $120 for two people, the satisfying should outweigh the bland by a slightly larger margin than it did. ©