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Friday, November 8, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Something's definitely fishy here, and that's fabulous

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Flying Fish


2234 First Ave., Seattle, 206-728-8595.

Seafood

***

$$$

Reservations: recommended.

Hours: dinner served 5 p.m.-1 a.m. nightly (limited menu available after midnight).

Prices: small plates (appetizers) $5.50-$12.75; large plates (entrees) $14.85-$19.80; shareable platters (market-priced, some priced per pound).

Wine list: nearly 200 world-ranging labels (including New Zealand's best exports and many by-the-glass options) are updated daily and skewed appropriately toward Asian-influenced seafood preparations. 50-plus bottles are priced at $30 or less.

Sound: loud.

Parking: none provided, pay lots nearby.

Full bar / credit cards: AE, DC, CB, MC, V / no obstacles to access / smoking permitted at bar only.

There's a party going on at Flying Fish. And it's been going on night after night after night for seven years. Haven't been? Then you've been missing out on some serious action. Haven't been in a while? Then perhaps you've forgotten what it's like to survey the scene from the door, politely bumping body parts with strangers. Depending on the reservation situation, you may end up a wallflower, stuck in the crush of new arrivals. Instead, strike a pert pose and head for the bar — the heart of the action and the house-party equivalent of the crowded kitchen.

Here, you're that much closer to a drink, a nibble and a cigarette and have increased your chances of meeting someone new and exciting. That someone might interest you in a mojito (the drink made famous locally at the Fish's Latin-loving sibling, Fandango). Or share crispy frog legs with blue-cheese-dressed frisee ($10.25), tasting like a crafty cross between Buffalo wings and soft-shell crab and one of few non-seafood dishes on the lengthy, daily-changing menu.

Serious conversationalists might luck into a candlelit balcony table — the perfect perch to engage in a tête-à-tête over the savvy wine list. Those intent on finding a seductive spot to dine, drink and tryst might head for the large private room hidden in back, reserved — literally — for that purpose.

No matter where you've landed at Flying Fish, one thing is certain: The energy level will reach critical mass when the guest of honor arrives. Attention noisy partygoers! May we please have a moment of silence for the neon name that lights up the corner of First and Bell: the high-flying F-I-S-H.

Fabulous fish, beauteous bivalves, comely crustaceans, fried, seared, wokked, grilled, glazed, crisped, wrapped, smoked, steamed, curried and blackened: This is the lure of Flying Fish. One taste of these colorfully creative constructions and you're playing meet-and-greet with some badass seafood, courtesy of chef/owner Christine Keff.

Say hello to whole fried rockfish, "Sister-in-law" mussels and grilled Gulf shrimp among the shareable platters that inspire a communal feast. Market-priced, these festive finger foods dazzle the eye and dance on the palate. The memorable rockfish (3 pounds / $32.95) could body-double as the Vietnamese version of the Thanksgiving turkey — hold the bird, fry the fish and save the crispy skin for me. "Trimmings" include banh trang — rice-paper pancakes for wrapping chunks of moist white fish, once you've given it a spritz of lime and tucked in the fragrant herbs and crunchy bean sprouts provided.

Pristine mussels steamed with lemongrass taste exactly like a week at an expensive health spa must feel — and at $8.95 per pound, I can actually afford them. The searing heat from messy, jerk-marinated, shell-bedecked Gulf shrimp, on the other hand, means a Mardi Gras for the mouth. Quick! Bring me a beer! And another half-pound of those grill-smoked beasts ($14.95).

Among the menu's multitude of "small plates" and "large plates" are inspirations that sent me into paroxysms of unbridled pleasure. And if I sound like the fictional heroine in a bodice-ripper, you'll excuse me: I'd take this lusty fare over a literary Lothario any day.

Roll me over in the clover with the sauce from lobster ravioli ($10.25), a single, deconstructed raviolo embracing lobes of lobster. Satisfy me with a simple paste of salt, ground pepper and lime, the dredge of choice for tush-tender calamari ($8.50) whose exotic banana-blossom salad is all about tantalizing textures. As is the kasu-marinated black cod ($17.75), an ethereal layering-on of flavorings (sake, dashi) perfuming a near-translucent fillet silky as a Japanese kimono.

It's a poor man who misses out on crispy monkfish ($18.80), the so-called "poor man's lobster." These meaty morsels, seasoned and flash-fried, rest atop a Thai-inspired black rice cake; green-papaya salad adds crunch and character to a dish in need of neither. Thailand is also the inspiration for a seafood hotpot, a cast-iron cauldron of shellfish offering complex flavors riding a wave of sweat-inducing red curry ($15.75).

Disappointments are few. Fresh escargot are overwhelmed by a Roquefort cream sauce ($9.80). An Italian-styled sturgeon with porcini and bread crumbs ($18.50) is rendered less appealing, no doubt, by comparison with the extraordinary course that preceded it: Hawaiian Kahuku shrimp nesting in rice noodles with matsutake mushrooms ($10.65).

Working the room at Flying Fish are personable professionals whose knowledge of the menu and the wine list runs deep. Their timing, dependent on the vagaries of cocktail service, the kitchen and the crowds, takes an occasional beating, but their composure remains admirably intact. Too bad the same can't be said of mine as I forked into the swoon-producing toasted coconut-cream torte ($6.75). Like the high-Flying Fish, this high-flying layer cake deserves a moment of silence — and its name in neon.

Nancy Leson: nleson@seattletimes.com.

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