There is much that is seductive about Wildfish, beginning with a pair of water-sheeted columns at the entry and continuing with the runway lighting that leads you inexorably toward the large sunken bar with its communal tables and suspended fish skeleton sculpture. The oyster-shucking station beckons beyond. So does the glass-enclosed wine room to one side. Lighting is contrasty and very dramatic. And though some have complained that service has declined since opening day, ours was unfailingly polite and efficient — even before the restaurant’s publicity person noticed me waiting for a table. Diners are given a couple of options for that wait: outside at some seating flanking the entry or inside at the first-come, firstserved communal bar tables. In summer, the outdoor option for both dining (for which the wait — and there will be one — is presumably shorter) and waiting will be less attractive. Inside, you may find yourself standing until seats open at the bar. Solution: Make reservations, of course, or consider beating the rush by coming early for the generous happy hour, taking advantage of reduced-price appetizers and drinks while paying less and less heed to the need for a private table.
After about a 20-minute wait (30 had been indicated), during which time we were served wine on the patio, we were led, blinking to adjust to the diminished light level, to a raised booth flanking one edge of the cavernous space. A single spotlight either made reading the menu easy or impossible, depending upon your location around the table’s perimeter. But with time and a little more eye adjustment, we managed to focus first on the appetizers. They sounded serious — especially ones such as the New England Jonah crab claws with “Atomic” horseradish. (Jonah crabs, a.k.a. peekytoe, are said to be related to the West Coast’s Dungeness and are prized especially for their claws.) Our waitress, clad as are all servers in a clinical-looking white coat, made the selection easier by emphatically recommending her favorites. A friend had lauded the tartare of Pacific ahi, but we decided to test staff savvy: The all-lump crab cake and the crispy cashew calamari got the nod. They arrived to gasps. First gasp related to size: The serving of the calamari (no rings or tentacles, just the steak sliced and battered) was especially huge — easily entrée-worthy atop a tangle of bean sprouts, crispy rice noodles, shredded carrot and lethal-looking red chiles. A soy-ginger dressing added to the already elevated flavor profile, but the tender squid strips held their own, defying us to eat them all. They won; we couldn’t.
The last gasp (or at least a subsequent one) was reserved for the crab cake, and here, though the serving was undeniably generous, it was a gasp of quality, not quantity. Dining Companion, a Virginia girl with very fixed feelings about crab cakes, pronounced them excellent, and it was fruitless to try to find fault: There was none. The crust was crisp, the texture tender, fillers were minimal, and the chive remoulade even hinted at something a little sexier.
With the arrival of entrées, a near-fanatical concern with super-heated plates was added to Wildfish’s obsession with size. As it sat on its plate, the impressive 2-inch cut of Pacific ahi steak seemed to continue cooking from the bottom up, but we would not be rushed. And could not be; the flavors of everything on the plate, from the prodigious mound of wasabilaced mashed potatoes to a ginger-soy jus dressing the tuna, defied any quick dispatch.
The filet of Gulf snapper was hardly diminutive either, but it at least looked less daunting. I suspect the snapper continued to cook as well, as the texture became less firmly flaky with time. (Two preparations of Chilean sea bass — “no juveniles, only mature fish,” asserted our waitress when questioned about sustainability — are available, and the rendition in a soy-sherry broth might mitigate the hot-plate syndrome somewhat.) The restaurant’s now-accustomed generosity seemed to stop somewhat short with the filet’s topping of Jonah crab, but the lemon-chive butter sauce was a beautiful complement to the combination, and the fish itself was impeccably fresh-tasting. We didn’t finish either dish, however. Nor did we finish the half portions of sugar snaps with portabellas and green beans with water chestnuts. Piping hot, of course, they were at least initially al dente.
The wine lists are both interesting and extensive — and red-heavy. (There’s a captain’s list that includes a $651 red from Italy’s Gaja, for example.) We consequently ignored the often too rigid fish-with-white wine rule. Unfortunately, the galaxy of assertive flavors surrounding the tuna didn’t render it easily wine-friendly (a “fat” California chardonnay might have worked with the crab cake and the snapper), but we enjoyed the 2005 Newton Red Label Merlot regardless and even contemplated ordering the molten-center Godiva chocolate cake to test its wine compatibility. (I never find that red wine and chocolate work together all that well, but that doesn’t stop me from trying.)
A Granny Smith cobbler with Amy’s ice cream didn’t ignite any sparks. But a souffléed bread pudding did get our attention. I seem to remember some talk about flames (it’s hard to take coherent notes in the near-darkness), but the meringue top of the dish did at least appear to have been subjected to serious heat. The pudding beneath the puffy cap isn’t really souffléed, however — it’s merely loose and moist, and I think I prefer the sturdier article. The fancysounding Makers Mark bourbon sauce didn’t excite, either; it seemed merely harsh.
Some lighter desserts such as simple tarts and sorbets would appear more appropriate after a full-throttle meal of large portions and intense flavors (steaks, a veal chop and chicken are also available, by the way), but I suspect it’s not to be. Most of the women observed at Wildfish looked as though they don’t eat dessert anyway. The men should follow suit.
1834 NW Loop 1604 (at Huebner Road)
Open daily at 4 p.m.