by Elissa Karg
Mitchell’s Fish Market
117 Willits, Birmingham
Eats: 4 stars
Experience: 3.5 stars
Mitchell’s Fish Market is a member of that new breed of restaurants: the upscale chain. With headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, Cameron Mitchell Restaurants owns more than 18 eateries in Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Plans are in the works to open a steak house next to the Fish Market this fall.
Mitchell’s features a bustling crowd, a window looking in on a room where fish are cleaned and cut, and an ice-filled display case with luscious steaks of mahimahi, trim pieces of swordfish, bright salmon fillets, a tray of plump shrimp, a tank of lobsters, etc. The dining room is divided with columns numbered 7GE, 2EW, 8AS, evocative of buoy markers.
The selection of fish varies from day to day. You choose the fish and its style of preparation: grilled, broiled, blackened or “Shang Hai” — the restaurant’s signature preparation. The experience is up and down — one night provided a three-star experience, while a trip back was decidedly better.
Two appetizers were delicious. I wasn’t sure what was holding the Chesapeake Bay crab cake together, but it was excellent and accompanied nicely with stir-fried corn and red peppers. Equally good were the steamed littleneck clams, yawning open in a bowl of buttery white wine broth that was perked up with Parmesan cheese, diced fresh tomatoes and croutons.
But the “famous” house salad, which comes with slices of dates, could have been more generous. And on our first trip I was not impressed with grouper prepared Shang Hai style. Served on a mound of sticky rice (which appears in many dishes) and circled with a ring of spinach, the dish was simply dull. On our next visit, a friend was thrilled to see on the menu Columbia River king salmon — a wild salmon from the cold waters of Oregon that she describes as “infinitely better” than Atlantic salmon. Ordered very rare, the fish was spectacular.
I enjoyed the (farm-raised) Atlantic salmon roasted on a cedar plank and served with roasted eggplant, asparagus and other vegetables, garnished with goat cheese and a relish of portobello mushrooms — very flavorful. Likewise for the New Orleans seafood stew, a rich combination of salmon, mahimahi, shrimp, scallops, mussels and calamari in a tomato broth, well spiced.
A more mainstream seafood platter was prepared with a very light, puffy beer batter. The shrimp, scallops and Boston cod under the batter were top-notch, each item pristine, juicy and sweet. Unfortunately, it is all served on top of a pile of french fries — rendered cold and soggy by the fish. (Of the many framed reviews around the room, one mentions the cold fries. Apparently, Mitchell’s didn’t take the critique to heart.) However, good hush puppies and coleslaw come with the dish.
For dessert, the vanilla bean crème brûlée was excellent, and a banana rum bread pudding was quite nice, topped with a caramelized banana. The lemon sorbet was disappointing and not light — it was covered with a scoop of whipped cream and tasteless strawberries.
As far as overall experience, on our first visit, our entrées arrived before we finished our appetizer and the runner put us in an uncomfortable position as to whether we wanted to keep the entrées or send them back.
The wine list is well-chosen, with two dozen by-the-glass options beginning at $6. A bottle of 2000 Petite Syrah from Napa was velvety and stood up to the robust entrées.
A full bar features a raw bar, which offers a platter of shrimp, clams, oysters and lump crabmeat for $37.
Check out the restaurant’s Web site, cameronmitchell.com, for recipes and chef’s tips.
Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.