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THE GALLIVANTING GOURMET: Wildfish a hip catch with flavorful hook

If Georgio Armani designed a shopping center, it would look like The Bluffs. On the corner of Bison Avenue and MacArthur Drive, it features chic Tuscan villa architecture in a parking lot replete with olive trees. It is the home of the aptly named Wildfish.

“Wild” because it describes the scene in a single word and “fish” because it describes the quintessence of the menu.

As you walk into the high-ceiling ultra modern space with theatrical lighting, you are confronted by a giant oval-shaped bar with a huge abstract sculpture of a whale backbone floating above it.

The combination of chatter, laughter and techno music creates the energetic cacophony of a hip club while the pitch perfect cuisine announces a fine dining establishment.

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Tiered rows of leather booths command the space beneath mirrored walls on one half of the room. On the main level leading out to the spacious patio, there is a second dining section dominated by a floor-to-ceiling glass wine room. In addition, the back wall features an open kitchen and oyster bar.

On the lushly planted patio is yet another bar and eating area with two fire pits, evoking a more mellow vibe.

Sitting in a booth adjacent to the bar, we couldn’t help but observe the scene: single, silver-haired suitors and the women who want them, and young, hip 20- somethings, traveling in packs.

A basket of very good crisp sourdough bread helped us stave off hunger pains as we perused the appetizers.

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Though tempted by the daily selections from the raw bar, including oysters of the evening, bigeye ahi with wasabi crème fraîche or lobster salad, we chose crispy, cashew calamari. These sliced, lightly battered strips of calamari steak were meltingly tender.

They were tossed with crispy rice noodles, sprouts, carrots, cashews and green onions in a ginger soy sauce.

This very large portion could make a meal. Our only quibble was that the calamari was a bit over-salted.

Highly recommended by our charming waiter Benjamin was the classic Chinese salt and pepper shrimp, deep-fried in the shell, then wokked with salt and pepper.

Chili and sugar snap peas are chef Steve Warner’s modern update.

The Hawaiian ahi tuna poke is another good choice. The excellent buttery tuna is like a tartare but with slightly bigger chunks of fish, nicely seasoned with a bit of heat.

Salads include Greek, Caesar and an iceberg wedge, as well as the more interesting sounding baby lettuces, fuji apples and candied walnuts in a sesame ginger vinaigrette, or the hot goat cheese and wild mushroom salad.

If you are ordering one of their aged, prime Chicago steaks, you might want to start with the salad of colossal shrimp and fresh Jonah crab (similar to Dungeness) with avocado, tomato, grapes and almonds.

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If for some reason you chose a restaurant named Wildfish and are not in the mood for seafood, four steaks and a thick veal chop may satisfy a different yen. If your appetite is Herculean, you might enjoy chowing down on a 22 ounce bone-in rib-eye with a side order of truffled macaroni and cheese “gratinata” or thin crisp onion rings with blue cheese fondue.

If fish is your dish, you’ve come to the right place. First of all, the fish is impeccably fresh. Secondly, it’s impeccably cooked.

Chef Steve has a deft hand and seems to know exactly the right moment to pull the fish from the heat.

The extensive selection includes lemon sole, prepared in brown butter or sauce almondine as well as Parmesan-crusted with garlic butter. Chilean sea bass can be steamed Hong Kong style in a light soy broth with sesame spinach or prepared in the more robust, crisp roasted style with lemon garlic and scallions.

The featured shellfish are sautéed jumbo George Bank scallops with citrus fruits and macadamia brown butter; colossal shrimp stuffed with crab in a chive remoulade and two broiled half-pound lobster tails served with butter and lemon.

Trying to navigate the many choices, our helpful waiter advised us to try the Hawaiian butterfish (waloo), a thick delicately flavored white fish, garnished with Jonah crab. It was sautéed and served in a light coconut milk broth balanced by a touch of lime. The creamy background created a place for the fish to take center stage. We were mightily impressed by the ethereal texture and sweet flesh, cooked with consummate finesse.

The chef’s touch was also apparent in the wok-seared sugar snap peas and portobellas that we ordered from the menu of sides. The crunchy peas, accented with sweet onions and black and white sesame seeds, came in a light coating of Chinese oyster sauce punctuated with slivers of mushroom. All sides are big enough to serve two.

There are three warm desserts that need to be ordered when you choose your entrée unless you want to wait while lingering over coffee and an after-dinner drink. Choose from the cinnamon, raisin bread pudding soufflé with bourbon sauce, the warm Godiva chocolate cake or the hot apple cobbler with vanilla bean ice cream and hope you can make a dent in the generous portion. Other choices include crème brulée, lemon meringue pie, chocolate ice cream sundae or seasonal berries.

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The hot apple cobbler was served in a large gratin dish and was easily shared. The apples were crisp-tender and tasty. The juices were mixed with caramel, which is never a bad thing; the only drawback was that the topping was not uniformly crunchy. This is often a problem with cobblers: Keeping the fruit from being overcooked means the topping might be undercooked. One ingenious chef we know solved this problem by cooking the topping and fruit separately.

This restaurant has somewhat of a split personality. Usually, hip nightspots are not known for their outstanding food but Wildfish is the exception.

WHAT: Wildfish (949) 720-9925

WHERE: 1370 Bison Ave., Newport Beach

WHEN: 7 days Monday – Saturday 5-11 p.m.

Sunday 5-10 p.m.

PRICES:

Appetizers: $11.95-$14.95

Entrées: $19.95-$38.95

Sides: $5.95-$7.95

Desserts: $6.95

WINE:

Half-bottles: $25-$156

Bottles: $25-$120

By the glass: $6.50-$22.00

Corkage Fee: $20


ELLE HARROW AND TERRY MARKOWITZ owned a la Carte for 20 years and can be reached at themarkos755@yahoo.com.


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