In the mood for oysters? Montlake Cut is the place.
Shigoku, a stunning little cup-shaped number from Washington's Willapa Bay, with a lovely cucumber finish, was the oyster of my dreams one December evening shortly after Nick Badovinus' Preston Center seafood restaurant debuted.
Whether it's a baker's dozen on the half shell chosen by the chef and enjoyed with a fabulous bottle of white wine, or the ceviche du jour – topped with pale-green tobiko (flying fish roe) – or a yellowtail crudo dressed with chopped charred scallions and vivid trout roe, something cool from the raw bar is a great way into dinner at the 2 1/2-month-old restaurant.
Badovinus (whom you may know from Neighborhood Services or Off-Site Kitchen) is a native of Washington state; Montlake Cut refers to the channel that connects Union Bay and Portage Bay in Seattle, an oyster-shell's toss from the chef's hometown of Bellevue. Accordingly, the glorious seafood associated with the Pacific Northwest is the real star of the show.
Badovinus has given the former Spoon Bar and Kitchen space a casually elegant nautical makeover – with a sense of fun. Comfy swiveling bar stools have white vinyl seats made from honest-to-goodness helm chairs for boats; beer lights (a Badovinus signature) decorate one wall. Goldfish crackers land on the white-clothed tables when you're seated, and red Swedish gummi fish (plus a souvenir Seattle Mariners baseball card!) are parting gifts with the check.
The raw bar, like the rest of the menu, changes frequently, reflecting the best the market has to offer. I must confess, these West Coast treats tug at my own heartstrings: As a native Californian, I grew up eating delicate sand dabs and petrale sole (delicious here, crisply served Milanese-style) and revering fresh cracked Dungeness crab as the ultimate luxury food. I'm definitely a sucker for those West Coast oysters.
Wonderful Alaskan king crab has been on the menu since Montlake opened. My friends and I couldn't decide whether to get it cold with cocktail sauce and gochujang mayonnaise or hot with drawn butter and ponzu. We left it to the chef to decide; he sent it out half-and- half. Both were pretty stunning, but I think the warm-with-drawn-butter treatment showed the crab to its best advantage. (Ponzu did it no favors.) For chilled crab, go for the Dungeness, a generous cocktail of fabulously sweet crabmeat on slices of ripe avocado cradled in iceberg lettuce leaves and dressed with Thousand Island. A squeeze of lemon takes it over the top.
Want shrimp? That's from the gulf, and excellent whether boiled (perfectly cooked) and peeled, served with cocktail sauce and rémoulade, or crisply fried with tartar and cocktail sauces. A baked Dungeness crab and Parmesan dip is richly comforting, served with tortilla chips.
Perhaps your eye is drawn to the king crab fried rice that lives up there with the hot apps. If so, do indulge, either as a starter or a side order with a simply prepared fish fillet as a main course. Flecked with sliced scallion, bits of egg and that splendid crabmeat, it's wicked good.
With a few exceptions, there's not a whole lot of invention involved in the main-course plates; they're mostly pretty plain: a modest seared fillet, a ramekin of sauce, half a lemon and a little green salad garnish. One night it's a nicely seared fillet of Columbia River sturgeon with gribiche sauce, another night it's delicately flavored striped bass from Virginia with rémoulade. If it's something with a short season, like troll-caught Alaskan king salmon, grab it: It'll be gone before you know it. It's all about the natural flavor of the fish, simply prepared, carefully seasoned and (on all my four visits) perfectly cooked.
None of my guests was attracted to the dry-aged New York strip steak or the long-bone pork chop: a sacrilege in such a fish haven, went their thinking. Who was I to argue? Still, I nearly went for the steak, knowing what a great job Badovinus does with beef at Neighborhood Services. Instead I asked for halibut and chips, remembering the terrific fish and chips at the Tried and True, Badovinus' short-lived bourbon bar. I was rewarded -- with a giant plate of superbly tender and moist fish with beautiful texture, enrobed in a light and gorgeously fried batter with a Mount Rainier of golden fries. Home run for the Mariners!
If plain preparations tempt you toward sides, don't hesitate; Montlake's deliver. Particularly likable now are roasted asparagus with a sprightly touch of lemon or creamy, rich gratinée shells and cheese.
A pair of Quileute Indian razor clams got a snazzier treatment: Badovinus sliced 'em up, drizzled them with butter, bacon, arbol chile and more, returned them to their long shells topped with gremolata and bread crumbs and gave them a turn under the broiler for toasty crunch.
The wine list, while not at first glance less pricy than elsewhere, actually offers some impressive deals on interesting bottles. That 2012 Bret Brothers Mâcon-Villages Terroirs du Mâconnais on the list for $60 retails for about $25; a 2014 Penner-Ash Viognier from Oregon's Willamette Valley offered for $65 retails for about half that, a very fair markup.
Come dessert time, a somewhat grainy chocolate pot de crème got lost under too much whipped cream; a generous apple crisp topped with commercial vanilla ice cream was nice though unmemorable. There is one sweet that's superb, though: A rum-soaked vanilla mini-Bundt cake with a lovely crumb and a jaunty pouf of whipped cream festooned with lots of candied citrus peel and ribbons of mint.
There are restaurants where we go to be impressed and maybe even blown away, and then there are restaurants where we go because we know what we'll be getting, we know it'll be very good, and we know we'll be treated well. The latter is is Montlake Cut. I'd happily return very soon – and often.
Montlake Cut (3 stars)
Price: $$$-$$$$ (oysters $3.25 each, $39 for a baker's dozen; lunch starters and salads $11 to $26, sandwiches and main courses $14 to $28; dinner starters $11 to $29, main courses $17 to $39; desserts $7 to $10)
Service: Attentive and professional
Ambience: A casually elegant dining room with a playful (yet not kitschy) nautical theme
Noise level: Medium
Location: 8220 Westchester Drive, Dallas; 214-739-8220; mlcdallas.com
Hours: Monday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. (lunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., dinner 5 to 10 p.m.; raw bar items served all day)
Credit cards: AE, MC, V
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar. A well-chosen list of mostly West Coast and French wines offers interesting choices that work well with the seafood, and solid values.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor
Average dinner per person
$ -- $14 and under
$$ -- $15 to $30
$$$ -- $31 to $50
$$$$ -- More than $50