Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Prices: Starters $7-13; entrées $14-27
Fare: Traditional and original seafood
Atmosphere: Cavernous, yet candlelit and cozy
Liquor: Full bar
When the seafood chain McCormick and Schmick's first opened at Pittsburgh's shiny new SouthSide Works, it seemed to portend a significant exception to other national chain restaurants. For one thing, its proprietors displayed all the ambition of hard-working local entrepreneurs, aggressively recruiting some of the best personnel from Pittsburgh's existing seafood restaurants. If that ruffled a few feathers, it certainly promised an elite level of dining.
Then there was the restaurant itself: dark woodwork and mica light fixtures handsomely evoking Pacific Northwest Craftsman style rather than the raucous shore-shanty aesthetic of so many seafood places. Our only objection to the interior was the noise level -- the tables are close together, and hard surfaces bounce conversations around in a manner unbecoming $20 entrees.
Those entrees are listed on a large menu updated daily for lunch and dinner. With 28 fish and shellfish on the Fresh List across the top, and the oyster listing alone longer than the perfunctory offerings of meats and poultry, this is not a place for the landlubber in you.
The appetizers we chose, crab cake and steamed mussels, are ubiquitous, and not just in seafood restaurants. We wanted to find out if McCormick and Schmick's could parlay these old standards into something special. With the mussels, the answer was yes. A red curry broth, although lacking the aromatic hallmarks of true Thai curry, had a subtly spicy herbal flavor, carried by coconut milk, that built up on our palates as we ate, and the mussels were uniformly large and tender. The flash-fried Maryland crab cake was less satisfying. Though the lumps of crab were jumbo enough, the seasoning was weak, tasting to Angelique mainly of pickles. However, the tartar sauce had the creamy, tangy character of an aioli.
Whittling down the choices for entrées was a challenge with McCormick and Schmick's lengthy menu of specialties (there is also a shorter list of "Traditional Seafood" dishes, including baked cod and fried Gulf shrimp). Did we want our fish pecan-crusted or stuffed with crab and Brie? Blackened, seared or sautéed? With Jamaican hot-rum-butter sauce or pineapple buerre blanc? Angelique ultimately chose Nova Scotian steelhead -- a relative of salmon -- broiled with parmesan and horseradish crust. Though the fish itself was beautifully cooked, the preparation, which seemed to offer an appetizing combination of nutty, creamy and zingy flavors, was tentative to the point of being bland. Too-small amounts of parmesan and horseradish failed to meld into the zesty, crispy crust Angelique was anticipating, instead providing only trace flavors to the moist, flaky steelhead.
As an inland seafood restaurant should, McCormick and Schmick's emphasizes freshness at every turn, so Jason took the opportunity to try its specialty, "True Cod," poached with spinach, crab, prosciutto and boursin cheese. As he hoped, this fish was light, firm, and without a trace of oiliness or fishiness. Unfortunately, again, the toppings, which had sounded so tempting, were scant: The boursin in particular only evidenced itself in a precious few bites, and the minced ham was more apparent visually than on the tongue. The problem, it seems, lies in deciding whether the dish is meant to be a pure offering of fresh fish or a more elaborate pairing of other flavors with the fish foundation. In the cases of both of our entrees, it seems the kitchen tried to split the difference, with disappointing results.
Still, we were game for dessert. Angelique, who grew up in the South, was thrilled to find the Southern treat of red velvet cake on the menu; she was eager to compare McCormick and Schmick's to her own. Sadly, the cake was sold out, and she settled for Boston cream pie, an extravagant affair several inches thick and glazed with glossy chocolate frosting. Jason's almost-flourless chocolate torte balanced, delectably, on the precipice between moist and crumbly.
McCormick and Schmick's has obviously made a tremendous investment in bringing its brand of upscale seafood restaurant to Pittsburgh. Though we found the atmosphere congenial and the freshness of seafood as advertised, ultimately, with an expensive menu of mostly unimpressive preparations, it didn't pay dividends in our dining experience.
Angelique: 2 stars