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Big Fish 

Chain restaurant makes a splash with Charlotte diners

After reminding the hostess with the deer-in-the-headlights gaze that my reservation time was 15 minutes ago, she once again looked at the schedule, and then looked up and asked me for my name for the third time within those 15 minutes. "Even I know your name by now," the woman waiting beside me whispered.

A long standing maxim in the restaurant/hospitality industry is the rule that the front of the house (the service) is what will make or break a business. Even with so-so food, folks will return if the service is excellent. Yet the world's grandest epicurean creations cannot overcome inept, impersonal service. Evidently, that rule has changed.

McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurant, which opened in early March at SouthPark Mall (a second location exists on Tryon Street), has been crowded ever since its opening. Evidently waiting even 30 minutes past the time of a reservation is acceptable here in Charlotte.

"We're just waiting for those five tables to leave," the hostess informed me. "Maybe five more minutes."

Reservation seating — and scheduling physician appointments, for that matter — is an art form. In a physician's office, life-threatening emergencies can occur, thereby causing delays. But in the restaurant business, there's a known average length customers spend at a table, especially if the restaurant has been in operation for 30-plus years. Is it possible that five tables were out of predictable time parameters simultaneously?

McCormick & Schmick's has been around the block a few times since it was founded in 1972 by William McCormick, who bought Jake's Famous Crawfish in Portland, Oregon. Today, McCormick & Schmick's has a base of 53 full-service restaurants, with more opening this year. In keeping with the half of their restaurants that are located in buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, the interior is a beautifully appointed, upscale environment with dark woods and elegant lighting fixtures. Behind the bar is a stunning stained glass depicting the Wright brothers and their flyer on the Outer Banks — a nod to North Carolina's history.

Sound, however, reverberates through the dining areas close to the bar. One way to get away from the chatter is the quiet snugs: four-top booths with a luxurious curtain that can be drawn for privacy. Other diners can spread out in large handsome booths with dark wood tables set with paper placemats and linen napkins.

The concept here is fresh seafood, and they do this well. The menus at the SouthPark location are printed twice daily. At the top of the menu is the "Fresh List," 30 different varieties of fresh seafood selected by price availability with a description of origin. These items are then found throughout the menu. According to General Manager Mike Tobias, the menu at the SouthPark location has 40 percent of the national's chain core menu, and the rest is designed for the projected customers at that particular store. One of the core items, for example, is the stuffed salmon, while one of the local items on the current menu was submitted by a local contestant.

For land animal eaters, M&S offers several beef, chicken and pasta dishes. Entree prices range from $13 for fried fish and French fries to the big-ticket Cajun Ribeye for $29. The median entrée price is about $20. The chef is Ken Posko, a graduate of the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute in Pittsburgh.

The first course we tried was extraordinary: oysters and more oysters. Renowned food writer M.F.K. Fisher wrote in Consider the Oyster, "American oysters differ as much as American people, so that the Atlantic Coast inhabitants spend their childhood and adolescence floating free and unprotected with the tides, conceived far from their mothers and fathers too by milt let loose in the water near the eggs, while Western oysters lie within special brood chambers of the maternal shell, inseminated and secure, until they are some two weeks old. The Easterners seem more daring."

You can savor this "daring" in their large oyster combination ($18.85): two each of six varieties grace a large platter of shaved ice and set on a table stand. We lowered the tray to examine the striking shells: one with a greenish cast, another crescent moon shaped, a third large and smooth. Take a bite and you're beside the sea, listening to gulls and eagles, and feeling the wind in your hair. We tried the sweet and juicy Salt Aire and Malpeque from Prince Edward Island, Cape Breton from Nova Scotia, the plump and salty Moonstone from Narragansett, RI, the large Chedabucto from Malpeque Bay, Canada, and the enormous, two mouthful Dosewallip from the life-rich salt water Hood Canal in Washington. To match the oysters, we enjoyed Michael and Mary Colhoun's superb Landmark Vineyards 2002 Overlook Chardonnay.

Next up was a disappointing oyster stew too reliant on dairy for flavor; then again, after fresh oysters, cooked oysters cannot stand much ground. The iceberg wedge salad bore a heavy coating of blue cheese but was pretty much as to be expected. The entrées, however, were not up to par. The seared ahi tuna with soy sauce and cucumber salad tasted all too familiar and plain, while the greasy soft shell crabs with the gummy grit cake were singularly uninspired.

Our server, who valiantly tried to keep up with too many tables, brought around a tray filled with such desserts as a lush apple upside-down pie. And, yes, the ice cream on this tray is a scoop of lard — that's why it doesn't melt.

Although the ingredients are pristine and still raw, this is chain food, albeit upscale and expensive. Eating in McCormick & Schmick's is like being inside a giant machine. This is the new big fish riding the growing corporate tide into the small pond of Charlotte.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via e-mail: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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