Fish tales

McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurant

1111 J St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 442-8200

The latest addition to Sacramento’s dining scene is a chain restaurant that’s smack in the middle of downtown in a historic building. Originating in the Pacific Northwest, McCormick & Schmick’s strives for a turn-of-the-last-century feel. This location has dark wood paneling, booths curtained with heavy green velvet that Scarlett O’Hara would be proud to wear and lots of framed prints of fish and seafood. Along with the sea-life art, there are many bits of Sacramento memorabilia.

The emphasis on history extends to the lengthy cocktail menu, which is divided into historical periods. The classics are all here, along with more recent creations like apple-tinis. I was sorely tempted by a Manhattan or a Singapore Sling, but went instead for a French 75, which I thought might be less inclined to knock me back with one drink. It was nicely astringent and herbal from the gin, not too sweet and very refreshing. The wine list is long on chardonnay (which goes well with seafood) and surprisingly weighted toward big reds. It’s reasonably priced, though, and there are plenty of choices.

The service was, well, odd. I’m not quite sure how else to put it. When we presented ourselves at the host station, a gaggle of servers and hosts stood there, but the main host (the only one who could help us) was so deeply ensconced in checking computerized reservations that she couldn’t look up at actual live reservations. And the system, apparently, was not helpful enough to tell her if our table was in fact available. Granted, it was extremely busy, with people stacked deep in the bar and most tables full up.

Our server was smooth, attentive, professional and all that, but he seemed to have his own ideas about what we should order. Occasionally a hint of denigration—of our choices or of the chef’s—crept into his comments. He brought the check pretty much the minute we got our dessert.

The restaurant touts the menu as being printed twice a day based on what’s fresh. Not to be cynical, but I think those “printings” also correspond to lunch and dinner service. Overwhelmingly long, with a short “meat and poultry” section and everything else aside from salads coming from the fishy end of the spectrum, the menu made it tough to choose. As you’d expect, there are lots of oysters and other raw-bar choices; plenty of basic grilled fish; casual classics like fish and chips and seafood stew; and entrees with a plethora of global influences: miso, spicy curry sauce, “Jamaican hot rum butter sauce,” Cajun spice.

All the seafood is named by point of origin, and there’s a “fresh list” at the top of the menu—a list that confused me, since not everything on the menu is on the list. It should be, our server said, indicating that the chef might have run out of room to list everything. I was intrigued by the one local fish—sturgeon—but our server ran it down.

I started with a salad of arugula, slightly overripe avocado and grapefruit with a citrus-flavored dressing. It was simple and pleasant. Meanwhile, my husband was tempted by the appetizer of steamed manila clams in garlic-herb broth. The clams came with a little ramekin of wholly unnecessary melted butter, but were ultra-tender and perfectly steamed. The broth was thin and quite garlicky, with nice herb notes, but I felt it needed salt to round out the flavor—an unusual problem for steamed seafood.

I settled on an entree of Arctic char from Seward, Alaska, pan-seared with tomato-bacon confit. The “confit” was more of a chunky, barely cooked pan sauce, with the bacon all but MIA; in only one bite did I get a hint of its flavor. And the char, which our server had described as being like coho salmon but thicker, had a lovely flavor but was woefully undercooked. I like actual salmon on the rare side, but this was wet and raw inside. The edges, where it was more done, were moist and delicious.

My husband, after much debate, settled on Dungeness crab legs (shelled, as our server said judgmentally) in a sauté with mushrooms and artichoke hearts, then flamed with brandy. I was disappointed that the flaming wasn’t done tableside; he was disappointed that the artichoke hearts were evidently frozen rather than fresh. Frankly, for $27, I think the kitchen should trim artichokes, especially since they’re in season. The accompanying rice seemed to be of the precooked, boil-in-a-bag type, though steamed asparagus and baby carrots, which also came with my meal, were impeccable. The crab legs themselves were succulent and delicious.

The desserts are brought around on a tray for selection. The upside-down apple tart looked delicious amid a sea of chocolaty things. It was, with a brown sugary-cinnamony-nutty topping, a melting buttery bottom crust, and lightly seasoned, sweet-tart apples. Cinnamon ice cream alongside added a little something extra.

McCormick & Schmick’s does a lot of things well—especially sourcing fish—but once it’s baited the hook, it needs to follow through a bit more with its cooking to really land diners.