Mystic Fish is: (a) A snowbird homage to the steely but picturesque maritime town in Connecticut.
(b) A New Age head shop devoted to the great and mysterious Flipper-finned Goddess of the Sea.
(c) The sequel to that quirky little '80s chick flick Mystic Pizza, starring Lili Taylor, Annabeth Gish and a pre-Pretty Woman Julia Roberts, in which the plucky Portuguese trio (yes, they are supposed to be Portuguese, even Julia) ditch the pizza joint and open up an anchovy bistro.
(d) An upscale but inland seafood grill from the folks responsible for Guppy's and E&E Stakeout.
Answer: (d). Easy, right? The stylish eatery has been appeasing landlubbers since 2000 with a mix of high-class seafood and unique meat and poultry. The interior of the restaurant is simply stunning. Long, custom-built aquariums curve between the tables, rows of shiny pukka shells line the walls, and sharp, curly tendrils of colorful blown glass arc over diners' heads, glinting darkly in diffused blue-violet light. The whole effect is like being seated in a Tim Burton undersea world.
Fans of Eugen Fuhrmann's other restaurants will recognize some of the routine. Though the signature Caesar salad with corn chip confetti is noticeably absent, Mystic Fish serves Guppy's popular rare seared black and blue tuna ($6.50) with a wasabi and soy reduction, and shares E&E Stakeout's obsession with the South African Tristan rock lobster ($22.75, or $12 with an entrée). There's a lengthy paragraph on Mystic's menu extolling the lobster's virtues: cold, unpolluted waters and a lonely, volcanic island seascape devoid of even limpet life, which forces the lobster to subsist on a vegetarian diet. The tail had a sweeter and milder flavor than the average Maine variety, not an uncommon trait, but traded off with a texture that lacked the firm consistency of our native crustacean.
I found Mystic Fish shined most when it went out on its own. Fresh Gulf shrimp ($7.50) sautéed in white wine possessed a piquant bite of mustard and garlic, and a large bowl of steamed Prince Edward Island mussels ($6.50) swam in a yummy, if unoriginal, saffron-garlic broth. Though perfectly satisfactory, these appetizers were completely eclipsed by two others. An herbed goat cheese spring roll ($5.75), more reminiscent of a crepe than any kind of Asian finger food, was drizzled with a sweet balsamic and cabernet-wine reduction glaze. I found the olive and artichoke heart tapenade to be a bit of an afterthought, especially since the warm, crispy roll needed no accessory. Another turfside appetizer, the escargot, "mystic style" ($6.50), featured an exquisite sauce that combined red wine and curry for a singular dish that convinced my special guest companion, a young Chicago chef, that his snail prejudice was unfounded.
The landside entrées were similarly excellent. My date's Australian rack of lamb in a Dijon and Guiness stout demi-glace was as delicious as the version we'd sampled a few months ago at Mystic Fish's neighbor, The Blue Heron. The dish appears to be a specialty at this particular Palm Harbor strip mall. A more unusual option was a tenderloin of Colorado farm-raised bison ($23.50) with an indifferent, creamy horseradish sauce. Mystic warns all diners that the restaurant will not be responsible for items ordered cooked medium or well-done, and I recommend you take their advice, for I'd wager that anything more than medium would render bison - even farm-raised bison - too tough to eat. At medium-rare, the tender but plain grilled filet was deep crimson with a flavor that, though only slightly stronger than beef, required the addition of herbs to balance it out.
Despite Mystic's inland address, the seafood specials left little to be desired. Fresh off the grouper ban, the night's menu featured a monochromatic array of mild grouper filet, crabmeat and a very frothy Hollandaise ($20.50). The dish easily satisfied the more traditional palates, while more unusual creations - such as the snapper with wild mushrooms in a sweet, pungent miso and citrus reduction sauce ($18.25) - appealed to the more daring in our company. Each special highlighted the quality of the fresh fin fish that is a staple at all of the restaurants bearing the Eugene Fuhrmann stamp. At Mystic Fish, Fuhrmann and partner Doug Bebell have another winner.
For dessert, we sampled a variety of the restaurant's Floribbean-inspired desserts. Banana bread foster ($5.25) was simple but elegant, though I preferred the warm grilled pineapple topped with toasted coconut ice cream ($4.50) - the latter wasn't as sweet, and the lighter style appealed to an appetite already sated from my other courses. We also tried the daily crème brulee ($4.95), which appears on the menu bearing the rather redundant description of "with a torched sugar crust." (Really? On a crème brulee?) During my visit, the flavor was bitter orange and rosemary, an unusual combo to find in a dessert, but one I wish I saw more often.
We also ordered one of the specialty martinis, which are made on a seasonal basis with in-house fruit-infused van Gogh vodka. I recommend giving the drink a whirl if the latest offering is anything like my holiday martini ($7), which was steeped in apple, cinnamon and nutmeg, and made for a festive and surprisingly warming treat. (Mystic also has a decently sized wine list, though the vintages are a tad underwhelming.)
Unlike Guppy's and E&E Stakeout, Mystic Fish does not include gratuity as part of its check. I am not sure if this policy affects the service (after all, I've found Guppy's service to be excellent and E&E's to be somewhat lacking, and they use the same method), but our waiter displayed prompt, friendly and helpful behavior throughout our meal. When I arrived at Mystic Fish, I expected the same quality that sets Fuhrmann's other restaurant's apart: first-rate fresh seafood slickly presented in stylish surroundings. I'm happy to report that the inland cousin more than makes the grade.
Diana Peterfreund dines anonymously and the Planet pays for her meals. She may be contacted at [email protected]. Restaurants are chosen for review at the discretion of the writer, and are not related to advertising.