- Walter Novak
- Big Fish, where even the salmon are chatty.
The food's not bad. The decor is clever, casual, and lighthearted. And the prices are reasonable. But does any of this justify the huge crowds angling for tables at Westlake's Big Fish on Friday and Saturday nights?
Not from this side of the shrimp fork, it doesn't.
The seafood restaurant -- the 21st dining spot owned and operated by the Muer Corporation, and the company's second installation in the Cleveland area (the first being Beachwood's Charley's Crab) -- has only been open since September 22, and novelty no doubt explains part of its attraction. And in truth, Big Fish is a sight to behold.
Custom-designed and built from the ground up for the Muer Corporation, the spot is colorful, contemporary, and full of smart and artistic touches. Round portholes take the place of conventional windows in the spacious foyer. Blown-glass "bubbles" double as hanging light fixtures. An impressive stone fish sculpture dominates the center-rear wall of the restaurant, and intensely hued, 36-foot-long fish murals hang on each of the two side walls. The prow-shaped bar is surrounded by four tall but narrow rippling "waterfall" sculptures, and even the carpet -- deep blue with pale blue bubbles -- echoes the nautical theme.
Yet the inventive motif can be hard to appreciate at 8 p.m. on a Friday, when Big Fish is so crowded that all but the most aggressive guests can abandon any hope of getting within shouting range of the bar, the ear-splitting noise level rules out conversation, and a table is still an hour's wait away. Like many upscale chains, Big Fish does not accept reservations. Instead, the staff employs that odd device -- "call-ahead seating" -- to lock diners into an arrival time without guaranteeing that a table will be available once they get there.
I called early on a Friday afternoon to inquire about the call-ahead system. How far in advance, I asked, should I call if I wish to dine at 7 tonight? The staffer who answered the phone said 6 p.m. would be a good bet, but when I made my 6 p.m. call, I was told the call-ahead list was already filled until 8:30! Nevertheless, I went ahead and put my party of three on the list for 8:30, and when we arrived at 8:25, we waited another half-hour in the chilly foyer (both the bar and the dining room entrance being packed to the gills, if you will, with other would-be diners) before we got a seat.
So very inconvenient. Yet without the call-ahead system, our wait for a table could have been more than twice as long.
To their credit, management hasn't let the overwhelming demand for tables tempt them to pack guests into the dining rooms like sardines: Both tables and booths are relatively roomy, and tables are spaced far enough apart to allow chairs to be moved in and out with ease. Likewise, the kitchen and the servers seem to mesh like clockwork, moving diners through a meal with remarkably few hitches. (While relatively little attention is paid to removing soiled dishes or replacing used flatware, our drink glasses were repeatedly refilled, courses arrived promptly, and we didn't have to flag down our server to get our check.)
As for the food: In two visits, we found some hits and some misses. Perhaps not surprisingly, we were more impressed with the victuals that we sampled during a late-afternoon weekday lunch than with the eats we tried during the Friday night frenzy. That any kitchen could turn out perfect food, hour after hour, at that volume, is beyond reasonable expectations.
But at lunch, with more manageable demands, the kitchen did well. The menu isn't just fishing for compliments when it proclaims that Big Fish's Maryland blue crab cakes are the best: A lunch entrée of two of the delicious round balls of seafood was outstanding. Dusted with just a small amount of fine white bread crumbs, then broiled, the cakes were made up entirely of big, tender chunks of luscious crabmeat bound with a slight amount of seasoned mayonnaise and were certainly some of the best we've had in the region. A miniature ramekin of creamy mustard sauce was provided as a garnish, but the crab cakes were so richly flavored on their own that it seemed like gilding the lily to use it.
We found a better use for the sauce in service to the tender-crisp green and yellow beans and carrot strips that sided the crab cakes; not especially well-seasoned, the veggies took on a whole new persona when we thought to dip them, like pretzel sticks, in the sauce. Too bad we couldn't have come up with a similar way to boost the flavor quotient of the underseasoned fried rice that also came with the dish.
Another Big Fish specialty, Honey-Mustard Salmon, was more satisfying. Seared, then baked to a meltingly tender medium-rare, as requested, the delicate filet was served on board a pile of soft lo mein noodles and draped with a light and sweet soy-based sauce that managed to complement, and not overwhelm, the taste of the salmon.
At both lunch and dinner, entrées come with a round loaf of warm flatbread, topped with olive oil, shreds of Asiago cheese, and a mix of dried herbs. Flavorful, if chewy, when warm, the bread became dry and unappetizing by the end of the meal. Likewise, a crisp-crusted flatbread pizza, topped with a slight amount of tomato sauce, some bits of fiery ground sausage, and a smear of creamy goat cheese, was good when hot, but became dry and unappealing as it cooled.
Our dinner visit began with an excellent raw-bar version of seared tuna sashimi, four long, thick strips of delectable, very-rare tuna on a large portion of seaweed "noodles," served with a little ball of incendiary green wasabi and a few slices of pickled ginger. Flawlessly fresh, the dish was prettily arranged on a yellow triangular plate and presented with a pair of chopsticks for the nimble-fingered among us.
We also liked the rich flavor of a cup of thick, mildly spiced black-bean soup, which had plenty of tender beans, a few bits of red tomato, and one or two slices of andouille and tasso sausages. An order of fried clam strips was tempting, although it only took a bite to discover that the unusually big strips were more breading than clam.
As we had done at lunch, we tried to stick with entrées that the menu identified as Big Fish specialties. Unfortunately, none of our dinner choices was an unqualified success.
The most disappointing was the J. Cool Seafood Pasta: a clump of starchy, overcooked spinach fettuccine topped with a few moist and flavorful mussels and clams, and an abundance of overcooked shrimp, scallops, and chunks of salmon. (We never spotted any of the calamari that the menu had promised.) Some tender cloves of mild garlic, chunks of onion and celery, and bits of sun-dried tomato didn't add much zip, and the dish required salting at the table to perk it up. Both pasta and seafood were moistened with a thin, light broth that, while flavorful on its own, lacked the oomph needed to pull the diverse ingredients together into one satisfying whole.
On behalf of fish-phobes, we tried the Tuscan Top Sirloin, a petite tenderloin served on top of three big slices of (presumably) unintentionally blackened bruschetta and buried beneath a ridiculously large slab of marinated and grilled eggplant, a portobello mushroom cap, and a slice of melted mozzarella. The overly toasted bruschetta was saved by a juicy relish of chopped tomato, kalamata olives, and artichoke hearts that added much-needed moisture. The steak itself was cooked to a rosy medium-rare, as ordered, and was tender and reasonably flavorful.
Sizzling Savannah Rainbow Trout also had its peculiarities. The relatively meaty trout filet was gently prepared and moist, if nearly obscured by a thick, sweet, pecan-studded mustard glaze. Fish and pecans, in turn, were topped by a tossed salad of mixed lettuces, red onions, and mandarin oranges, with a fiery bite from a red-chili vinaigrette. However, despite the dish's frankly messy appearance, its assorted flavors and textures were surprisingly well-balanced, and the result was a pretty good meal.
Housemade desserts, on the other hand, have been unqualified successes. Key Lime pie was perfect: a creamy, custard-like filling with an ideal blend of sweet and tart flavors, in a crisp graham cracker crust. And we also appreciated the fact that, instead of a phony Day-Glo green coloration, this Key Lime pie was a natural shade of yellow. Chocolate Trio, served on a pool of raspberry sauce, was a round of tender chocolate cake layered with rich mousse, coated with a creamy ganache frosting and topped with a large, whisper-thin chocolate "flower." And the yummy Sharkfin Pie -- a behemoth wedge of creamy vanilla ice cream coated with finely crushed Oreo cookie crumbs and drizzled with hot fudge sauce and whipped cream -- could easily satisfy a pair of diners.
But when all is said and done, is there anything here that should compel diners to wait more than an hour for a table? Of course not. Happily, we don't have to look far to find better food and equally smart decor -- at restaurants that accept reservations. After all, this West Side eatery -- regardless of its size and the lure of its newness -- is by no means the only catch to be had in our local culinary sea.
Elaine T. Cicora can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.