- Walter Novak
- How fresh is it? That Maine lobster was alive till you ordered it.
First things first: Provocative name notwithstanding, there are no naughty mermaids at The Nauti Mermaid, a casual beer-and-seafood joint docked in the Warehouse District. About as racy as it gets, in fact, is the small-scale figurehead mounted over the front door; still, with her ample endowments draped in Mardi Gras beads, she's chaste enough that even a 12-year-old boy would scarcely give her a second leer.
All of which proved to be a huge letdown for a Saturday-night companion, himself well past the age of consent. Apparently, he'd been hoping for pole-dancing sea gals -- or at least a crew of saucy serving wenches working the floor, and his disappointment at finding his fantasies dashed upon the rocky shore of G-rated reality was palpable. Fortunately, he got over his naughty natterings pretty quickly, once the food started to arrive: Nearly everything coming out of Executive Chef Brad Mitchell's kitchen was about as nice as it could be.
Owner Michael Graham, an alumnus of the Twinsburg-based Hyde Park Restaurant Group and opening manager for their nearby Metropolitan Cafe, has done a commendable job of meshing a laid-back bar vibe with a big menu of mostly well-prepared seafood and fish. The result is a place that is handsome, friendly, and resolutely nonfussy, stocked with paper napkins, colorful Melamine dishware, and a bottle of ketchup for each and every table; yet it serves better-than-average food at prices that are reasonable, particularly by neighborhood standards.
The tone is set by the Mermaid's shipshape decor, which deftly rides the wave between cute and clichéd. Yes, there are the requisite lobster traps, stuffed and mounted fish, and an upside-down rowboat hanging from the high tin ceiling. Worn gray siding covers the walls; pine tabletops glisten beneath a seaworthy spar varnish; and the crimson glow from the neon LIVE BAIT sign turns the energetic Saturday-night scene into a beach party. But factor in three big-screen plasma TVs, one digital-internet jukebox, and a crew of lanky servers dressed in jeans and T-shirts, and you've got yourself a galley that accommodates everyone from young families to AARP members and all the urban hipsters in between.
Few things float our boat like a cold brew and a basket of battered-and-fried shrimp tossed back in a neighborhood watering hole, and the Mermaid takes this simple pleasure to a new level, with 10 beers on draft (including Killian's, Bass, and Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold), and 20 beers by the bottle, ranging from Corona and Dos Equis to Chimay and Stella Artois. (The full bar also offers a small, perfunctory wine collection, with choices by the bottle and by the glass.) We launched one voyage with a pint of juicy Blue Moon wheat beer (pricey at $5, but remember where you are), from Coors Brewing Co., served with the à la mode slice of orange; and a decent pour of Guinness (also pricey at $5.50), with a sort of limp head supporting a rapidly fading shamrock.
As for the shellfish part of the equation, the half-pound appetizer portion of bite-sized popcorn shrimp made for a mighty good nosh. Then again, a dinner-sized serving of beer-battered black tiger shrimp (sided by expectedly ho-hum, out-of-season corn on the cob and meltingly tender redskin potatoes, thoroughly roasted and deeply seasoned with garlic and herbs) tasted pretty fine, too; and if the thick beer batter could have been just a little more crisp, at least the big, juicy shrimp inside tasted perfectly sweet and fresh.
Of course, "freshness" can be a bugaboo for spots that specialize in the highly perishable creatures of the sea. Some places get around the potential problems by relying on frozen products; others stick with fresh, but can be slow to dump unused product after it passes its prime. As a result, seafood lovers learn to be picky about where they indulge their habit, out of the real fear of finding tainted goods.
No need to worry on that count here. Mitchell says that he receives shipments of fresh fish and seafood three to five times a week, and on our cruise through the menu, we never encountered any reason to doubt him.
Take those six enormous Blue Point oysters on the half-shell. Cool, lush, and naturally salty, each ocean-scented one was a little tribute to the sea gods, and served simply with lemon wedges and homemade cocktail sauce, they did their makers proud. Of course, the menu did say that saltines would accompany them -- but no. However, there was a tiny tub of some mysterious, pale-green potion. We sprinkled an investigative drop or two on one of the oysters, slurped it down, and then sat by in stunned disbelief as smoke started pouring out of our ears. "Oh yeah," said our server, "I meant to tell ya. That's habañero sauce!"
(A word to the wise: When the Mermaid's menu describes something as "spicy," believe it. Consider the spicy grilled tilapia tacos, for instance, dabbed with a fiery chipotle pico de gallo: The corn tortillas may have been on the soggy side, and the tilapia may have been in short supply; but spicy? You bet your bell-bottoms, sailor!)
Of course, there were plenty of other dishes that merely tickled, rather than terrified, our taste buds. A light-textured trio of crisply breaded crab cakes, for instance, served on a bed of baby greens and grapes, was pleasantly buoyed by a zesty aioli. And a Caribbean-inspired pineapple-mint salsa, which accompanied a firm filet of grilled grouper, offered a bright balance of fruit and heat.
The grouper was part of a "Match Your Fish" dinner, where diners can choose two fish from a list of salmon, mahi-mahi, yellowfin tuna, and grouper, and then choose two accompanying sauces from a list of sweet, buttery, fruity, and/or spicy possibilities. Besides the grouper and salsa, we picked the yellowfin tuna and citrus butter. While neither fish filet was large, they were both deftly grilled and tender, and the contrapuntal sauces added just the right fillip of flavor.
Other catches included a cool, creamy Maine lobster roll, stuffed with chilled lobster meat and crawfish tails, tossed with mayo; two gigantic Alaskan Red King crab legs, each weighing in at around four ounces and each impressively meaty and moist; and crunchy, corny little hush puppies -- frozen, but as good as anything we've downed south of the Mason-Dixon line.
The relatively limited number of landlubber alternatives includes salads, burgers, and chicken. It might also be worth remembering that happy hour is from 4 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and features such rotating deals as dollar-off drafts, 50-cent oysters, and half-dollar jumbo chicken wings.
Sweet endings are limited to chocolate torte, New York-style cheesecake, and authentic Key lime pie, prepared by an out-of-house bakery; a small wedge of pie offered a pleasant blast of sweet-tart tastes, although its $5 price tag seemed high.
Throughout our dinner visit, the pace was relaxed, but not tiresome; staffers proved consistently friendly and reasonably efficient; and the rock and roll blaring from the high-tech jukebox made a head-boppin' soundtrack for the evening.
So what if it wasn't really naughty? It was still a whole boatload of fun.