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Friday, April 22, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Mall trawl: Fish house is middling, but shoppers still bite

Special to The Seattle Times

McGrath's Fish House 1.5 stars


Alderwood Mall, 3000 84th St. S.W., Lynnwood; 425-670-9050, www.mcgrathsfishhouse.com

Seafood

$$

Reservations: not accepted; call up to two hours before arrival and place your name on the "Preferred Seating List" to reduce wait time.

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, happy-hour 3-6 p.m. and 9 p.m.-closing Mondays-Fridays.

Prices: lunch specials $6.99-$12.99 appetizers, soups, salads $2.99-$11.99 sandwiches and burgers $5.99-$9.99; dinner entrees $10.99-$29.99.

Wine: mostly inexpensive domestic selections by the glass or bottle plus several higher-end reds.

Parking: free in mall lot; mall valet parking available ($4).

Sound: well-modulated.

Full bar / all major cards / no smoking / no obstacles to access / adjacent takeout fish bar offers limited menu and outdoor seating.

It's Saturday night, and a middle-age couple sits patiently on a bench outside the front door of McGrath's Fish House, halfway through a projected hour's wait for a table.

They have yet to take in a movie at the mammoth new Loews multiplex looming across the street — the $9.50 ticket price gives them pause — but this is not their first visit to McGrath's, a handsome, 300-seat restaurant that opened in December at Alderwood Mall.

What would they recommend, this first-timer asks? "The Parmesan halibut is good, if a bit dry," they reply.

The halibut, which our server later also recommends, is so stiff it appears to be in rigor mortis under a golden crust of cheese. It is not something I'd wait in line for.

Ordered alone, it's $16.99; as part of a $19.99 seafood platter, it accompanies three chunks of very nice beer-battered deep-fried halibut and six smallish grilled prawns crowded on skewers. Either way the price includes the following generously portioned sides: sourdough bread, steamed vegetables, salad or coleslaw and a choice of potato, rice, pasta, tomatoes or cottage cheese.

Do the math and you realize that if a couple shared the halibut-and-prawn platter, ordered a couple of glasses of beer or wine ($3.95-$7.75) and even splurged on the most expensive dessert (Mile High Mud Pie, $5.49), dinner at McGrath's would cost the equivalent of taking in a movie and knocking back a bucket of popcorn and a couple of soft drinks across the street.

Perceived value may be one reason the wait on weekend nights routinely exceeds an hour. Convenience is another.

A woman I know, the mother of three busy youngsters, frequents McGrath's. The kids get what they like (fish and chips, free sundaes), she gets what she likes (fish tacos), and no one has to cook or do the dishes. Still, the most praise she can muster about those Cajun-grilled, tortilla-wrapped fillets is "they're OK."

After several visits to McGrath's myself, "OK" is the word most frequently found in my notes. The menu tempts with an ambitious fresh sheet and offers fish-house classics like whole steamed lobster and crab, chilled seafood cocktails and captain's plates. Fish comes planked, grilled, fried or stuffed, tossed with pasta or atop a salad. There's even sushi and, for landlubbers, steak, chicken, ribs and burgers.

But the kitchen performs so erratically that the multipage card becomes a frustrating maze with too many dead ends encountered on the way to dessert.

The best items were often the simplest: six pristine Kumamoto oysters on the half shell ($11.99); steamed snow crab legs served warm with drawn butter ($9.99); a hot Newport sandwich made on a toasted English muffin with bacon, lettuce and crab meat draped with hollandaise ($9.99).

I also like the salads and the soups: creamy, bacon-scented clam chowder and herby fisherman's stew, its tomato broth thick with vegetables and chunks of fish (cup $2.99/bowl $3.99) are included with the price of a sandwich or can be had in place of salad with a dinner entree for just 49 cents. Alder-planked salmon fillet ($ñ3.99) was cooked just right as were the plump sea scallops and bay shrimp peeking from a lushly sauced seafood fettuccine ($11.99).

The juicy, "Land-lover's rib-eye" ($17.99) proves the kitchen can do right by beef, too. And yet the all-American bacon cheeseburger ($6.99) — with over-charred meat, under-melted cheese and a half-toasted, half-soggy bun — proved inedible.

There were other sorry moments at the table. I found myself grabbing the salt and pepper with unusual frequency to perk up over-breaded popcorn shrimp ($5.99) and to revive the dreary steamed vegetables that come with every dinner entree — and go back to the kitchen untouched with some regularity, I noticed.

A rubbery chicken breast detracted from an otherwise serviceable mixed grill of prawns, snapper and chicken ($13.99). An equally elastic quality plagued chilled gazpacho mussels buried under a bland tomato relish ($5.99). The green-lipped New Zealand mollusks stubbornly clung to their shells and tasted as if they'd been held in the walk-in for days.

A low-carb entree from the fresh sheet ill-advisedly paired grilled tilapia with blue-cheese-and shrimp-stuffed mushrooms ($15.99) then added hollandaise. The kitchen seemed not to have noticed the sauce had separated; the only edible thing on the plate was broccoli.

The appetizer combo basket ($7.99) is a dismal assortment of fried nibbles with mundane sauces: mozzarella sticks and onion rings are decent, but sesame-crusted chicken sticks are desiccated, and crab and shrimp wontons are filled with mostly cream cheese.

Sushi ($6.99-$7.99) comes in the form of rolls. Except for their too-chewy seaweed wrappers, they are not bad and are offered in the bar during happy hour in half-portions for $1.99.

The eager staff tries hard to please, but their level of expertise varies, too, ranging from overattentive to forgetful. They are especially tolerant of children.

McGrath's is part of a growing Oregon-based seafood chain that seems to thrive in land-locked retail locales. Despite some serious flaws, mall traffic is likely to guarantee an endless supply of hungry people willing to shop till they drop into one of McGrath's commodious booths. For comfort, it certainly beats the food court.

Providence Cicero: providencecicero@aol.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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