Between the sheets
Sacramento, CA 95825
To wit: “Did you have a good lunch today?” “Yeah, I had a good lunch—in between the sheets!” Or, “Do you want a drink?” “Sure, I want a drink—in between the sheets!”
I admit, I’m prone to that sort of juvenile nonsense on occasion. But the phrase running through my head lately is not “in between the sheets.” Confronted with eating out at least thrice weekly, the refrain in my brain echoes, “For a chain.” As in, “That was a great burger—for a chain.” Or, what great ambience—for a chain.”
Let’s face it. At best, chain restaurants are a positive unifying force that augments our sense of collective American experience. At worst, they’re bad and boring. Whether you’re eating at one end of that chain or another, the common denominator is that you know what you are getting before you walk in the door.
So, it was with cocky self-assuredness that I entered Scott’s Seafood Grill & Bar in Loehmann’s Plaza. Started by Malcolm Stroud in San Francisco, Scott’s is a small, California-centric chain, whose history dates back to 1976. The Sacramento Scott’s opened in 1991. The Folsom Scott’s (9611 Greenback Lane, (916) 989-6711) followed in 1999. Alan Irvine and John Cook are the franchise owners, Cook having worked in a different Scott’s many years previous.
The atmosphere at Scott’s was good—for a chain. The softly lit main dining room was open yet intimate. The wine list was plentiful but not overwhelming. (I was pleased to see several half-bottles in the mix—perfect for weeknight dining.)
The menu blended old-world seafood and new: oysters on the half shell, cioppino, halibut encrusted with macadamia nuts, several selections of “reef and beef” (which is how upscale restaurants pronounce “surf and turf”) and, of course, the eternal seared ahi that has become the Big Mac of fish.
Service was a bit slow at first, but it righted itself quickly. Leading with an apology, our waitress launched into the salmon special: a spicy pecan-crusted Copper River number, with saffron basmati rice, balsamic port reduction and roasted-shallot tarragon butter. “From Alaska! … Available only one month out of the year!” The fish was supposedly genetically superior, with more omega-3 fatty acids. “The best-tasting salmon in the world!”
At $25.95, and with such a pitch, the Copper River salmon was entirely disappointing. The cut was too small. The fish had little of the velvety richness so satisfying in salmon. The crusted pecans appeared pebbly and unappetizing. The basmati, heavy, was overburdened in spots with the fancy butter. Each bite went over like a small child learning to read. The words came out, but there was no flow, no meaning.
The cioppino, however, was a delight. A light but hearty tomatoey broth held a community of sea creatures: salmon, clams, mussels, shrimp and crab legs. Only one land creature was represented: the mighty sausage. Nothing was overcooked; nothing was fishy. The Parmesan toasts were perfect transports for the delectable creatures.
As good as the cioppino was, the true stars were the Pacific Grove oysters, from British Columbia. Even in their travels, they remained briny, cold essences of the sea, just as they promised.
M.F.K. Fisher has a famous essay on oysters. In it, at the tender age of 16, she tries her first oyster at a school fete and pretends great sophistication in front of her girl peers. She has all the giddiness of a schoolgirl flush with her first romance. She is drunk on oysters.
Oysters also feature prominently in that seminal Japanese food movie, Tampopo. The hero pays a pre-pubescent girl diver for one of her prize catches. He slurps the sea creature with abandon, cutting his lip in the process. A drop of blood forms on his lip and then grows larger and redder. He is marked by his oyster encounter.
That is how it is with oysters. You should remember in dreamlike detail every last one.
So good were the Pacific Grove oysters that they were worthy of closed eyes. Forget about the platter, which included oysters Rockefeller as well as barbecued, fried and smoked oysters. After tasting the ones on the half shell, the others seemed a waste, like ordering a filet well-done.
Sigh. Mentally, it’s hard to like Scott’s. But practically, it’s hard not to like it. Sure, it’s a chain. It’s in a strip mall. It has that slightly contrived special-occasion atmosphere, with too much art on the walls. But the seafood—the real seafood—wins you over.
A glass of beer, a half dozen of the restaurant’s freshest oysters on the half shell and a hearty platter of cioppino? That’s a habit worth keeping. Even for a chain.