by Susan Bryan
When's the best time to order fish? "At 6 a.m.," according to Tim Lords, executive chef at Scott's Seafood Grill & Bar in Palo Alto.
Lords says a chef who wants fresh fish has to be an early riser. He must be right. All the entrees I sampled at Scott's were so fantastically fresh that I'd never go anywhere else for fish--if I weren't such a penny pincher.
Scott's can be expensive. Entrees start at $13, or "$12.95" in menu numbers. Most dishes hover around $16, with Australian lobster tails topping off the list at $25.50. Oh, sure, there are burgers for $7.50 and salads for $5.75, but why bother?
What you buy at Scott's is fish. What you pay for is freshness. And that's what you'll taste, no matter what culinary frills come with your fish. When Tim Lords took over as executive chef in 1991, he dictated a new regime of lighter sauces and condiments at the 10-year-old restaurant. Three years later, his crew seems equally adept at traditional favorites and trendier entrees. The light, golden crust on their grilled rainbow trout ($13) explains how the oft-ruined dish became such a menu staple. And their "blackened" rock cod ($13) is not so utterly innovative that you can't taste the moist, white fish under the fine dusting of tangy spices.
The shrimp jambalaya that came with the rock cod might not be "down and dirty" enough for my sausage-loving Cajun relatives. But Scott's light tomato concoction was perfectly tuned to our local emphasis on low-fat, fresh ingredients. What's more, the tiny bay shrimp in Scott's mix would have gotten lost in a darker flavored stew.
Scott's light touch with spices works on the appetizer side of the menu, too. One of the best things I tasted was white bean soup flavored with salt pork and a touch of rosemary and oregano ($3.75). There was just enough spice to enrich the broth without overpowering the delicate bay scallops hidden among the beans.
Oddly enough, only Scott's supposedly "classic" saute sauce seemed off-balance. All eight restaurants in the Scott's chain serve the lemon/butter/wine sauce with seafood sautes. But the sour version I got overpowered the sweet crab meat in my dish. The scallops and prawns ($18.50) fared better, but neither benefited.
Perhaps Scott's scrupulously fresh fish just tastes best with lighter preparations. My meaty Hawaiian opah came bedded down on pasta laden with a heavy tomato cream sauce that didn't improve the fish's tuna-like flavor ($15.50).
Because the menu at Scott's changes daily, you may not find any of the dishes I tried. If you want a simple preparation, let your server be your guide. The staff is mature and courteous. I listened as one patient waiter explained every detail of several dishes for a diner on a special diet. When I requested an empty glass to share my husband's beer, that same waiter brought me a small glass full of Anchor Steam draft instead ($3.25). On another night, a waitress brought us sample sips of two wines sold by the glass so that we wouldn't have to take our chances with the labels ($4.25). Such small courtesies add up to great service at Scott's.
A quiet table is harder to come by, though. If you want a calm meal, ask for the back room. The front room, with its big bar area, is not recommended for conversation, especially when the bar's recorded music battles tunes piped into the dining room.
Minus the front room uproar, Scott's crisp linens, professional staff, and fabulously fresh fish add up to a soothing and very satisfying evening. If you're up for more than cozy comfort, sign up for Scott's next oyster festival (January 26-28). Chef Tim Lords is pairing Pete's Wicked Ale with three varieties from one oyster farm on Hog Island in Tomales Bay. The oyster farmer himself will be on hand to shuck his produce ($1.50 on the half shell). And the kitchen will be sending out cutting-edge appetizers--oysters in every cooking style imaginable: honey barbecued with succotash relish, baked with lemon/chive butter and caviar, broiled with tequila/chili butter and mango salsa.
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