Marriott Waterfront Hotel, 2100 Alaskan Way, 256-1040
Breakfast 6:30-10:30 am Mon-Fri; brunch 7 am-2:30 pm Sat-Sun; lunch 11 am-2:30 pm Mon-Fri; dinner 5-10 pm Sun-Thurs, 5-11 pm Fri-Sat; bar menu continues daily until 1:30 am and in between service hours.
As a chef friend of mine pointed out, the Fish Club really wants to be one of those posh waterfront restaurants, but it doesn't quite have the view. And it's true: From time to time I'm willing to put up with high prices and a corporate feel in exchange for a classy martini and windowful of water. But Fish Club, one of 15 restaurants for Boston-area Iron Chef Todd English, sits on the wrong side of the street. Floor-to-ceiling windows peer hopefully across the sidewalk at the trolley line and Alaskan Way traffic, toward the water. Like my two meals at the Fish Club, close but no cigar.
The menu was well designed, but spottily executed; the service was friendly, but easily addled; and the décor is just plain confused. An eat-in corridor has a Vegas vibe, all draperies and inlaid floors; a curlicued metal screen and brightly colored tiling near the bar have a high-'90s Starbucks feel; and the main dining space, oriented toward the white, open kitchen, is trying for a more subdued bistro mood.
On our first visit the restaurant was full, so we sat at the bar's communal table. We were told we could get the whole menu at the bar, but our waitress seemed a little alarmed that we wanted to eat a full dinner; whether she was concerned for her sanity or our waistlines, I'm not sure. The evening was bumpy, even if it does seem unfair to pick on bar service on a busy Friday night, and throughout the meal I could glimpse a manager type reminding servers of position numbers. Our second visit, on a calm weekend night, was much better, but there were still yawning gaps between courses and little effort to ease the wait.
The menu promises the brawny, broadly Mediterranean food that English is known for--heavy on the seafood, and full of saffron, figs, olives, and capers. Some dishes delivered. Once it returned from trip around the dining room with a confused server, a little pot of gumbo ($7) was delicious, well-balanced with sausage, filé powder, and slippery okra. Halibut cheeks were perfectly crisped and served with minty peas and a yogurt sauce ($8). Shrimp cocktail ($12) with a Worcestershire-rich "Bloody Mary" cocktail sauce was good, even if its four pieces of shrimp looked lonely shivering there on a 16-inch bed of crushed ice.
Despite good ideas and fresh ingredients, other dishes didn't come together. Grilled squid sat limp and lukewarm next to a spoonful of graying pesto ($6). And the tomato soup ($7), chunky and a little too acidic, did no justice to the late-summer fruit.
Fish Club has an affinity for really chunky portions of fish--a preference that causes some problems. A somewhat overcooked halibut filet ($22) came with a marvelous, light saffron-almond milk broth, but there was too much fish for the small ladleful of sauce. The spit-roasted "swordfish block" ($24, and also dry) was also too big for its succulent, caper-laced crab relish. Rare-seared tuna ($22) works fine when it's served in modest slices, but when it's as blocky as ours was, it becomes hard to eat.
The kitchen also had a hard time when it went for dishes with a defined tradition. The paella ($29), though draped with gorgeous langoustines and other shellfish, was soupy. A tagine ($22), a Moroccan-style stew of lentils with snapper and dried apricot, was a great concept, but the wrong place for a porky slice of pancetta. Even the cobbler, we were warned by the waitress, wasn't really a normal cobbler; it was, in fact, a warm blueberry cake. Just fine--but all the same, not a cobbler.
Other desserts were really good. We enjoyed a banana-chocolate terrine and an outstanding peach sorbet served with a couple of turnovers and a crunchy swag of brittle. When we were done, our waitress asked, "Now are you done eating?"
Almost. For some reason, I still harbor the notion that with a little more time, Fish Club will become a good option for a cold Bloody Mary, interesting appetizers, and a commanding view of Alaskan Way.