Has the Valley’s seafood revolution jumped the shark? Not on Aaron May’s watch.
Ahoy, seafood enthusiasts – your favorite cuisine is enjoying a renaissance in the Valley.
Already this year, Bonefish Grill (a seafood chain out of Tampa), Wild Ocean (from a former fishmonger at Whole Foods) and The Montauk (a beach-town-inspired eatery by the owners of the Original ChopShop Co.) have washed ashore in Scottsdale. Over in the East Valley, Chandler hooked Jogoya, an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet. And come this fall, Buck and Rider (from LGO Hospitality, the firm behind La Grande Orange and Chelsea’s Kitchen) and Crab and Mermaid (from the owners of Cold Beer and Cheeseburgers) will cast their nets in East Phoenix and downtown Scottsdale, respectively.
No point even mentioning the restaurant that arguably started it all: Sam Fox’s Little Cleo’s Seafood Legend. I’m out of fishing metaphors, anyway.
This resurgence of oceanic edibles brings us, after a fashion, to Aaron May, the Valley chef and serial restaurateur behind establishments like Over Easy, The Lodge, and May’s Counter Chicken & Waffles in Tucson. Unable to resist the call of the sea, May opened The Yacht Club, his laid-back Arcadia seafood spot, in March. Famous for his waffle dogs, Kentucky fried quails and grilled-cheese-sandwich-bun Sasquatch Burgers, May is more serious about his foray into the world of water-borne delicacies than you might expect. For fans who remember Iruña and Sol y Sombra, May’s two ill-fated tapas restaurants, it may suggest a stirring of his long-slumbering culinary ambitions. May’s knack for sourcing quality seafood is fully on display here – as is his talent for creating playful yet disciplined dishes for the restaurant’s well-heeled Arcadia crowd.
The Yacht Club occupies the former address of La Fontanella, Isabella Mannone’s longtime Italian eatery. The place was treated to a nautical-chic makeover, painted in pleasant neutral tones and decorated with oars, black-and-white yachting photos, and ropes cradling large orbs of blue glass hanging from the ceiling. Overhead, you hear the smooth stylings of Steely Dan, Hall & Oates and other easy-listening yacht rock legends, and within a few moments of being seated, you wonder if the entire staff shares a single wardrobe of bright polo shirts, cropped pants and deck shoes. Clearly, there’s a theme afoot.
If the sea-worthy scene has you hankering for an adult libation, chances are you’ll fare better with a cold beer or a glass of wine than a selection from the cocktail menu. Lacking the sophistication and depth of the dishes, many of the cleverly named concoctions (“Mast Appeal,” “Land Ho”) seem to have been constructed for a juice bar instead of an establishment selling alcohol. Even the bourbon-based Bitter Truth is drowned in sweetness. If May were to chart a new course for any one part of The Yacht Club experience, the cocktails would be it.
Are there lobster rolls? Yes, miniature ones, in two styles and served as an appetizer of four, two-bite chunks. Packed into sweet, pillowy bread, the lobster in the Connecticut style is warm and buttery. Meanwhile, the New England version is served cold with May’s signature mix of creamy aioli, tarragon and scallions, which complements the sweetness of the lobster without overwhelming its flavor. They are gone sooner than you probably would have liked, and you couldn’t be blamed for wishing May would just add full-size versions to the menu already.
Along with topnotch selections of market-price shrimp, crab legs and oysters hailing from the East and West Coasts, there are oysters Rockefeller, warm and briny under a blanket of Pernod-splashed spinach sprinkled with Parmesan breadcrumbs, and a piping-hot and luscious crab dip of mustard, lemon and three kinds of cheese that’s hard to stop eating until there is nothing left but a clean white dish. And May’s Arizona clam chowder is fantastic. Studded with bits of corn, chorizo and poblano chile, it’s the salty sea by way of the spicy Southwest.
If a bit of fiery flavor is your preferred direction, there are plump seared scallops with salsa verde resting on a risotto-like stew of farro and topped with crunchy toasted capers, and giant citrus-kissed shrimp with bacon, jalapeño and roasted tomato huddled together in a nest of lettuce in May’s version of ceviche. The trio of Baja fish tacos is especially good, packed with grilled mahi-mahi and with a chipotle crema, crunchy slaw and handfuls of pickled jalapeños.
There are moments when The Yacht Club’s dishes fall short. Garlicky lobster pasta with pancetta and lemon breadcrumbs, although tasty, is fairly one-dimensional. The barely crunchy fish and chips, made with whatever wild fish is in season at the time, crumble to pieces for lack of a successful batter. An accompanying slaw is devoid of any flavor whatsoever.
But the kitchen knows its way around halibut. Perfectly prepared and placed in a silky, herb-laden broth, the mildly sweet taste of the fish is joined by olives, tomatoes and feathery sprigs of fennel for a kind of fish-intensive comfort food by way of the Mediterranean Sea. All that’s missing is a piece of griddled bread to sop up what’s left.
The Yacht Club isn’t as seafood-intensive as you might think. For every dish of chilled king crab legs or mussels, you can choose from a listing of salads or vegetable sides. If your amiable server suggests the mixed green salad – a fresh mélange of arugula, grape tomatoes, bits of grapefruit and crunchy candied pecans and jalapeños tossed in sherry vinaigrette – you should order it. Of the vegetable side dish selections – including Brussels sprouts accented with lemon and thyme; long stalks of roasted asparagus with Romesco and almonds; and thrice-cooked potatoes tossed in a spicy tomato aioli – the best of the bunch may be the cauliflower au gratin, served bubbling hot with a crisp cap of three kinds of cheese.
The cooking here is light, so you’ll have room for dessert. Perhaps apple-berry cobbler or a deconstructed key lime pie served in a small glass jar. If you are seated in just the right place, toward the elongated window that the restaurant opens on cool nights, you might even imagine enjoying each sweet spoonful with an ocean view. There are worse ways to end an evening.
The Yacht Club
Contact: 4231 E. Indian School Rd., Phoenix, 602-368-2088, arcadiayachtclub.com
Hours: Dinner 4-11 p.m. F-Sa; 4-10 p.m. M-Th and Su; happy hour 4-6 p.m. daily
Highlights: Lobster rolls two ways ($17); crab dip ($11); Arizona clam chowder ($8); Baja fish tacos ($13); pan-seared scallops with farro ($31); halibut ($24)
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