Ask local food fanciers to identify the most conspicuous void in the Phoenix restaurant scene and one answer repeatedly surfaces: seafood. Not that Valley restaurateurs haven’t tried to surf this particular break. Last year, The Montauk in Scottsdale and Chef Aaron May’s Yacht Club both opened, and both are/were terrible; the former plagued by its mediocre menu and oblivious servers, the latter sunk by poor space planning and slimy seafood.
Buck & Rider and Little Cleo’s Seafood Legend – both trendy, high-end offerings – have fared better in shallow waters, but the Valley still feels meagerly provisioned when it comes to sincere, classic seafood. Enter Crab & Mermaid, a pan-coastal eatery that falls squarely between McCormick & Schmick’s and Pete’s Fish and Chips on the swankiness spectrum. The culinary performance isn’t perfect, but with its whimsical décor, extensive menu and consistent freshness, it does make for a fun entry into the seafood scene. Think Red Lobster on steroids, with a classier drink menu and more raw options.
The concept comes from Square One, they of the carnivore-friendly mini-chain Cold Beers & Cheeseburgers and its irresistible formula of cheap craft beer and oddball menu offerings like the PB&J burger. C&M is similarly kitschy and playful. From its weathered wood façade to the dock rope railings, hanging surfboards and nets, the place screams “seaside fish shack.” There are even hanging anchors, glass floats and a miniature lighthouse on the raw bar. A bit common for Old Town Scottsdale, but cute.
Executive chef Isaac Carter, on the other hand, isn’t here for show. He trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, later doing a 12-year stint with celeb chef Todd English. His menu is extensive, with more than 20 main dishes plus a design-your-own fish feature that lets diners choose a catch, sauce and preparation.
Carter’s East Coast pals would be proud of his crab cakes ($14) and lobster roll ($20), the latter hands-down the best version of this Maine staple I’ve ever sampled. Prepared Maryland-style with a salty cracker crust and sizable chunks of jumbo lump crab, the crab cakes are slightly dry, with a classic Old Bay taste. Similarly spiced and served warm – or cold, on request – the lobster roll’s lightly sweet, pillowy claw meat is a blissful departure from mayo-heavy “seafood salad” rolls that clog up both fish shack menus and arteries. It’s served on a toasted, buttery hoagie roll.
Crab & Mermaid’s shrimp ceviche ($12) and tuna poke ($15) are bright and refreshing without a hint of fishiness, the latter incorporating grassy avocado to balance the vibrant citrus flavor of ginger. In contrast, blackened tuna “sashimi” ($16) and coconut scallop ceviche ($17) flounder. The sashimi’s meaty flavor and velvety texture are masked by pungent mustard and wasabi, while the ceviche’s milky broth looks delicious but fails to break down the mollusk’s proteins, resulting in an unfortunate rubbery texture. “The best part is scraping out the raw coconut and eating it,” remarked one of my dining companions.
Most of the entrées I sampled were worth reeling in. Gritty cornmeal-breaded oysters and fiery Louisiana hot sauce contrast with sour pickles in the hearty New Orleans po’ boy ($14), and tangy beer broth imparts big flavor to the Cajun shrimp boil despite a lack of the Southern staple’s signature plastic baggie ($14). Crab & Mermaid’s version of this dish doesn’t deliver the high-impact flavor of those you’ll find in the Valley’s two reigning middle-brow bag-dining destinations – Vegas import Hot N’ Juicy Crawfish or Mesa’s Angry Crab – but the ale still makes for a savory sauce worth sopping up with the provided bread.
Also worthwhile is a homey plate of fish and chips made with Alaskan Amber beer batter ($15). Delivered East Coast-style on faux newsprint, the dish features thick white fish fillets cloaked in peppery, slightly greasy breading. It’s on par with my local favorite, The Codfather in North Phoenix, though not quite as flavorful. Whitefish fillets also fare well in a fish taco platter ($14) thanks to the flavorful addition of earthy green salsa and mustard cream sauce that brighten the otherwise bland corn tortillas.
Carter knows how to treat a prime catch. Billed as a “West Coast favorite,” almond-crusted halibut ($24) boasts a bread crumb crust with a slightly sweet amaretto undertone, and grilled mahi-mahi customized with a side of almond romesco ($15) has a delicately charred outer skin that crackles on the tongue. However, it was a bit dry inside – a forgivable offense given the thinness of my fillet.
If a single seafood selection doesn’t float your boat, there’s always Crab & Mermaid’s impressive North Beach cioppino ($22). The San Francisco-style stew is delivered piping hot in a black cast iron kettle for visual appeal, with whole fennel sprouting from the top like ocean seaweed. While the seafood collection promised on the menu isn’t always delivered to the table – our cauldron lacked squid and scallops – the cioppino’s delectable tomato-based broth is good to the last drop.
Desserts ($7 each) are splurge-worthy, especially tart key lime pie with a nutty crust and bananas Foster served in a giant goblet that reminded me of the massive banana splits at Friendly’s restaurants on the East Coast. Rum-soaked bananas add an adult twist that’s as sweet as it is potent.
Crab & Mermaid may not have the impressive fresh fish market of, say, Bluewater Grill or the innovative preparations of Little Cleo’s – Thai chili frog legs, anyone? – but 90 percent of seafood is freshness and sourcing, and it excels in that respect. Plus, looking around at the octopi and beachy blue-and-white color scheme, it’s easy to imagine you’re on a coastal vacation – always a good thing come summer when you’re stuck in the desert.
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