Scott’s Seafood Bar and Grill

Anyone writing about restaurants for this paper would be remiss if they failed to recognize the fact that UC Irvine is situated within poking distance of gastronomical greatness.

Now, ignoring all the glitzy high-end restaurants one could find in the area, the real champion is Scott’s Seafood Bar and Grill. Scott’s is somewhat hidden; sitting across from South Coast Plaza, it is rather easy to miss, but Scott’s doesn’t try to remedy this. It doesn’t need to. Anyone looking for fresh seafood for which it’s worth paying “market price” and kind, unassuming service will find Scott’s sooner or later.

The ambience echoes this confidence, and the restaurant is self-assured without being pretentious. Scott’s isn’t obnoxiously modern like Charlie Palmer’s Steakhouse, and it doesn’t try to pack customers in like sardines, either. The warm colonial-looking, Southern style design wouldn’t look out of place in Washington; I can imagine George Washington in one corner, perhaps some CIA agents talking seriously off the record at the bar and a Congressman getting taken out to lunch by a lobbyist at the table across from me.

The rather modest décor might not prepare one for the fact that their food is phenomenal. For appetizers, their calamari Provençal is definitely the best choice. For $12, it’s enough of an appetizer to feed four people (and if you’re ever feeling like a light lunch, it could conceivably be a three-person meal alone). The dish is stir-fried with tomatoes and green onions, and comes in a bit of a sauce. The strong flavor isn’t dominated by its multiple ingredients, and is instead a miraculous balance of them all. It really is a standout in a world where many restaurants have rather boring appetizers.

The Dungeness Crab Cake is their other great appetizer. So often I’ll go to a restaurant, order a crab cake and receive what I imagine a Krabby Patty might look like if Nickelodeon ever tried to market SpongeBob-inspired food. While other crab cakes are tough, small, overly breaded and slightly burnt, Scott’s crab cake is tender, generously sized and genuinely gives off the impression that it’s a cake instead of a seafood version of a vegetarian burger patty. It’s also, unfortunately, $18. For the price, however, you won’t be disappointed.

Scott’s isn’t one of those showy haute cuisine, pay-to-feel-cool places you might see satirized on television, the kind of place where a person pays $30 for a small circle of meat in a giant square plate. Scott’s gives large portions of high quality food and each main course comes with a side.

The Chilean Sea Bass is their most popular entrée. It’s tender enough that one doesn’t have to cut it with anything — not with a knife, and not with the side of a fork. Each tender segment comes away willingly, as if the fish itself wants you to know how good it tastes, and delivers a deliberately sweet flavor that’s balanced by a red pepper relish.

The seared and baked halibut is delicately delightful. This might sound odd, but to summarize it: it’s a steak of fish meat, but it has all the best qualities of a cake. The meat isn’t flaky like some fish, the golden marks where it was flayed by the grill aren’t tough or burnt, and the meal isn’t burdened by an overabundance of spices or marination. Instead, it’s topped with a pinch of pepper, with most of the dish’s flavor provided by a tomato glaze draped over the fish and the finely whipped potatoes.

Hopefully you’ll have room for dessert. If not, I suggest investing in a good stomach pump; dessert is where Scott’s truly distinguishes itself from pretenders to the throne.

Their soufflé is magical. One has to order it 30 minutes before it is to be served. Yet, it is worth the wait as the soufflé is heavenly, and like all of Scott’s food, it is deceivingly simple. It’s nothing but the puffed up chocolate that all other soufflés are, yet it’s far more satisfying than any other desert available in the immediate area.

Even drenched in chocolate sauce, it’s not overly chocolaty to the point of childishness, like a brownie, and it’s softer and less coarse than a normal cake. It is, in other words, the perfect dessert.

It’s worth burning the inside of one’s mouth for, which is good, because that’s what happens when you dig in; the inside is like a miniature oven. But don’t wait for it to cool down or your fellow diners will have finished it without you, hopefully not having physically harmed one another in the process.

Scott’s possesses the unique ability to strip fish of all the fishiness that normally makes people go for chicken or beef, and produce meals that feel and taste good. It’s definitely worth the extra money when not many expensive restaurants are.