Chain Gang

Mitchell's, a Midwestern seafood chain, invades our turf, but doesn't measure up.

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click to enlarge SQUID PRO QUO: With a unique twist on calamari, Mitchell's serves it Kung Pao style with green beans and red peppers. - Valerie Troyano
Valerie Troyano
SQUID PRO QUO: With a unique twist on calamari, Mitchell's serves it Kung Pao style with green beans and red peppers.

I'm not going to harass Mitchell's about how a fish restaurant might have originated in landlocked central Ohio. By this point, we should all know that fish can be flown in from anywhere and find its way to tables almost as quickly as if it came from local waters. Hey, we have such a dearth of decent fish joints in the Bay area that I was willing to believe a chain from the Midwest might be able to come on to our seaside turf and teach us a lesson.

Mitchell's Fish Market has the right idea, offering a dozen fresh fish every night from around the world, even a couple from our neck of the woods. It offers the usual styles of preparation and an old-fashioned raw bar loaded with shellfish. You can even purchase most of the seafood right from the refrigerated cases lining the front of a semi-open kitchen to take home and cook yourself. In fact, that might be the best way to enjoy Mitchell's.

Let's cut to the chase — the fish at Mitchell's is the worst part of the meal. The pretty filets and steaks you see while being escorted to the table, pristine on beds of shining ice and gleaming stainless steel trays, are routinely overcooked, some to the point of utter destruction.

Blackened mahi mahi ($19.95) — one of the two fish indigenous to Florida waters that is served at Mitchell's — was easily cooked twice as long as necessary, the formerly tender white flesh as tough as a grade B strip steak. I had to steal a steak knife to saw off a bite, and even then the dry edges frayed and shredded before coming apart. The dried herb crust was fine, I guess, but I had trouble eating enough of the mahi to get a good feel for the restaurant's blackening.

Mitchell's menu has a fine-print caveat about the danger of consuming raw or undercooked meats, an asterisk indicating the foods that might be a problem. Oysters and clams are marked, of course, but the warning is also applied to salmon and tuna.

No need to trouble the corporate lawyers, because the roasted salmon ($20.95) was left in the oven long enough to kill any nasty contaminants, along with most of the flavor and moisture of this usually-rich fish. Only a woodsy bit of cedar aroma survived to wreath this flavorless piece of farmed South American salmon.

The other local fish, black grouper ($20.50), was prepared with the sweet rice wine and soy broth that is Mitchell's signature preparation. It was good, the sauce reduced just enough to cling to the filet. The sticky rice, with fresh chopped scallions and pungent ginger, adds some counterpoint. Steaming is a surefire way to protect or inject some moisture into fish, but somehow this grouper still managed to be overcooked, the edges turned dry and crusty. Apparently, the filet was seared at some point in the process, just long enough to turn it unpleasant.

If fish is the raison d'etre for a place like Mitchell's, need I go on about the rest of the food? In the highly competitive Tampa chain restaurant community, if you don't do your specialty well, consumers have plenty of other places to spend their money. So that about sums it up — good night everybody!

Wait, maybe I should continue, just in case you decide to try the place out for yourself. And let's not sell Mitchell's short — even though the fish was awful, some of the food was palatable enough.

In fact, a spinach and pear salad ($5.95) — primarily ordered to inject a bit of green in an otherwise fat-filled round of starters — was the best salad I've had in a while. Crumbled blue cheese, powerful red onions, and bright-green fresh spinach were enlivened with some sweetened cashew bits and a vinaigrette punched up with a hearty dose of whole grain mustard.

Steamers ($10.95) — little-neck clams cooked in a broth of wine and garlic — were a welcome return to my days in New England, plump and tender in their black shells, a little crouton nestled next to each morsel for some textural contrast.

Thankfully, ubiquitous calamari ($9.50) was surprisingly less typical than most. Re-imagined Kung Pao style, the fried squid was tossed with a hint of spicy sweet sauce and topped with chopped peanuts, chilies, and scallions, with more sauce on the side. Beats marinara any day of the week. Mitchell's barbecue shrimp ($8.95) — rubbery, overdone and insipid — wasn't worth ordering.

Steaks are cooked just right and seasoned enough to generate a healthy crust. Decadent béarnaise accompanies every piece of meat, but why not go "Oscar" and up the buttery luxury by covering a filet with poached lobster and crab ($29.95) drowned in a sea of citrusy hollandaise? Take that, arteries!

Soups are best left untouched — gumbo ($3.95) tastes like tomato and flour, and the lobster bisque ($4.95) manages to replicate the texture of good bisque without any of the flavor. Clam chowder ($3.95) is almost preternaturally thick — sturdy enough to hold a spoon upright — and there is some clam flavor here, enough to lift this heavy white liquid above the better canned options.

If you hit Mitchell's for dinner, I encourage you to order the carrot cake ($6.95). It's obscene, a grotesquely huge wedge made up of seven layers, easily a foot tall and weighing several pounds. You'll take a few bites of the merely adequate gooey orange mass and push it aside, marveling at its size. In any case, it could help you forget about the mangled fish you might have eaten earlier in the evening.

It turns out that Mitchell's has nothing fresh to teach us. We already have enough overcooked fish, bland food and innocuous design for one city, and we certainly have enough local chains to satisfy our lowest-common-denominator dining desires. Thanks anyway.

Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. He can be reached at [email protected]. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.

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