Dining Review: McCormick & Schmick's brings freshness and variety to SouthSide Works

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You might say that McCormick & Schmick's is to fish what Morton's, The Steakhouse, is to beef. If seafood were graded by the U.S. government, there's little doubt that McCormick & Schmick fish would be stamped with the bright purple "USDA prime" imprint.

- Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette
Ricky Kirsop, executive chef at McCormick & Schmick's, presents an ahi tuna coated in Cajun spices and seared very rare, served with wasabi pickled ginger and wakame salad.
Click photo for larger image.

McCormick & Schmick's

2667 Sidney St.
South Side

Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-4 p.m. daily; dinner 4-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays and 4-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Basics: A seafood restaurant with a wide selection of fresh seafood and raw oysters flown in daily. The diverse menu appeals to a broad customer base from casual diners to families to business travelers and special occasion diners. The wood-paneled interior is attractive but quite noisy. Happy Hour bar menu ($1.95) is possibly the best dining value in Pittsburgh but beware of overpriced wines.
Prices: Appetizers, $3-$12.95; entrees, $18-$21; desserts, $5.50; wines, $7.25-$14.50 for a 6-ounce pour.
Summary: Smoking in bar; accessible; major credit cards accepted. Parking in garage across Sidney St. for $1 per hour or a flat $3 after 5 p.m.

The traditional fish house concept closely follows the steakhouse formula in other ways as well. There is an abundance of polished wood, soft light, handsome accessories and white-clothed tables. At the new Pittsburgh restaurant in the SouthSide Works, the high ceilings are hung with massive, gold-tone, marbleized glass lighting fixtures in the art deco style. Sconces in the same style and hung on the paneled walls cast a satiny glow on the warm wood. It is a classy room, yet one you feel you have seen before.

The name of the game here is seafood. You can be sure that it is fresh, well prepared and can be chosen from a wide selection. The menus are printed daily and start off with a list of 30 varieties of fish and shellfish available that day. The list includes the provenance of each fish: from Hilo, Hawaii, there is blue marlin, arctic char from Hofn, Iceland, cod from Homer, Alaska, Atlantic salmon from Santiago, Chile, or shrimp from Oregon Bay. You can taste the world while seated at a Pittsburgh fish house table.

A top attraction is a selection of six varieties of oysters coming from both Atlantic and Pacific oyster beds. If you enjoy oysters on the half shell, it is advisable to order a small sampler platter ($11.85), which contains one of each of the varieties available. It is fun to try to identify which are from which coast, which is the most briny in taste or the most creamy in texture. The oysters are served on a bed of crushed ice with a pair of sauces. There is the tomato-horseradish cocktail sauce preferred by most Americans as well as a vinegar-shallot sauce that appeals to European palates.

There are 13 appetizer options, 11 of which are seafood. The only choice for vegetarians is Spinach & Artichoke Dip ($7.90) served with garlic crostini. Steamed Clams ($8.95) or Steamed Mussels in Thai Red Curry Broth ($7.90) with the tangy BreadWorks sourdough bread the restaurant serves could replace an entree for those with small appetites. Maryland Lump Crab Cake with Tartar Sauce ($12.90) had a larger than expected amount of claw meat. Although the exterior was pleasantly crisp, I found it lacking in seasoning, and the tartar sauce paled in comparison to the spicy hollandaise served with the crab cake I had at a Washington, D.C., branch of this restaurant. The Corn and Seafood Chowder ($2.95) was excellent. Although very similar to the creamy New England version of clam chowder, I prefer its succulent scallops and shrimp to the usual chopped clams.

Goat Cheese Fritter with Toasted Almonds and Fresh Fig Salad ($6.90) is a salad lover's delight. The mildly salty goat cheese is crumb-coated and fried until very crisp on the outside. Served with baby greens dressed in a creamy vinaigrette, the salad is dusted in sliced almonds and garnished with thin slices of pear and a fig. The house salad ($4.80) is also excellent. Mixed greens are generously sprinkled with chunks of blue cheese and candied walnuts. My friend loved her Seafood Cobb Salad ($13.93). This remake of an old lunchtime classic featured liberal portions of shrimp, scallops and crab in addition to the usual bacon, avocado and blue cheese.

Since one rarely gets the opportunity to dine on perch from Lake Victoria, Kenya, it was impossible to miss the chance. Some people know this fish as Nile perch, probably the largest freshwater fish on earth. They are known to grow to weigh as much as 530 pounds, although most of the fish on the commercial market range from 10 to 15 pounds. Chef Ricky Kirsop stuffed the sweet, freshwater fish with crab meat, which harmonized well with the perch. Arctic char from Iceland ($19.80) was prepared without fuss. Grilled with an orange-ginger glaze, the char, a member of the salmon family, was tender and moist. A pair of asparagus spears and a mound of jasmine rice completed the plate.

Because it seems a pity to overpower the delicate flavor of the sea with extraneous tastes, I usually prefer fresh seafood with just a squeeze of lemon and a dash of salt. Chef Ricky is happy to grill or saute any fish on his list, but what is on the menu is an extensive offering of more sophisticated combinations. Salmon stuffed with Blue Crab, Shrimp and Brie cheese ($19.80) or Sea Scallops with Prosciutto, Lump Crab, Spinach and Cream ($19.80) or Blue Marlin stuffed with Gorgonzola Cheese and Sun-dried Tomatoes ($19.80) will appeal to those who prefer their seafoods stuffed with other ingredients.

Anxious to dine at McCormick & Schmick's without a strain on the budget? You might consider its legendary $1.95 bar menu. From 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 9 to 11 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, there is a bar menu with a list of entrees for $1.95 plus a minimum of two drinks. (I never ordered a second beer when I took advantage of this offer, and I wonder how strictly they enforce the "minimum" rule.) The bar menu is available at all McCormick & Schmick's restaurants. It consistently wins the award for the best happy hour wherever it may be. For this bargain-basement price you can have, among other things, a half-pound cheeseburger with fries, salmon cakes with crisply fried leeks, steamed mussels or fish tacos with black beans. From 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. it offers draft beer for $2.50 and a cosmo for $5. I enjoyed sitting at the long wooden bar and watching the expert bartenders squeeze fresh juices for their hand-shaken cocktails. There are also high tables with chairs available. The bar is decorated with lots of Pittsburgh sports memorabilia and early Pennsylvania photos.

Desserts are made in house by a pastry chef. Most of the recipes are old favorites of McCormick & Schmick's and can be found at all the restaurants. Jake's Truffle Cake, a decadent flourless cake of rich chocolate, goes back to the original restaurant in Portland, Ore. In Pittsburgh you can find something truly special called Chocolate Bag. This chocolate shell is filled with a tart and delicious passion fruit mousse. Ice creams served with the desserts come from Dave and Andy's in Oakland. Most desserts are $5.50.

McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurants, Inc. is a publicly traded company with 59 restaurants in 26 states. The company claims that it offers a lot of autonomy to the manager and chef of each individual restaurant. About 60 percent of the recipes come directly from corporate headquarters, but each chef is left some latitude in the preparations he includes on his menu. This explains the tartar sauce vs. hollandaise with the crab cake. Pittsburgh's chef Ricky has a strong background in Italian and Mediterranean foods, and that is evident in perusing his menu. The chefs do their own ordering and try to purchase as much as possible from local purveyors.

The one sour note at McCormick & Schmick's is its wine pricing policy. There are 22 wines available by the glass. The pour is a generous 6 ounces, but the wines are priced so that one glass almost equals the price of a bottle, which contains 25 ounces or more than four glasses! For example, Beringer's White Zinfandel sells for $6.99 a bottle. The price for a glass here is $7.50 or $26 for a bottle. Even on the bottle this represents close to a 400 percent markup. When I discussed the markups with Michelle Orfanopoulos, the restaurant manager, her reply was that the Pittsburgh markups followed the corporate guidelines. I found this to be consistently in the 300 percent range, even on the most expensive bottles. For example, a bottle of Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon selling for $49.99 is priced at $140. This means that even a very modest bottle of wine such as Lindeman's Reserve Chardonnay from Australia is priced at $44 on this wine list. Kendall Jackson's Reserve Chardonnay is $61, again a high multiple of the retail price.

The list also has some glaring holes. Any restaurant marketing oysters on the half shell should have at least one Alsatian Riesling on the list, and I would also like to see a Muscadet Sevres et Marne or perhaps a Sancerre from the Loire Valley. Both of these wines are perfect with raw oysters. Until McCormick & Schmick's reviews its wine prices, may I suggest that you stick to beer? I would also like to see the restaurant validate parking tickets as does its neighbor, The Cheesecake Factory.

Elizabeth Downer can be reached at edowner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1454.


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