August 25, 2010The restaurant at 1618 West Friendly Avenue, called 1618 West Seafood Grille, is one of the two offspring of the old Southern Lights. The other is the newly reborn Southern Lights, which is a cool upgrade of the old one, and much appreciated.
1618 Seafood Grille, on the other hand, is something quite different. In a city that recently lost the brilliant restaurant 223 South Elm, and which has never had a seafood restaurant that rises above near-adequacy, 1618 comes as a revelation.
We had heard good things from friends whom we trust to know what they're seeing and eating in a restaurant, so we arrived with high expectations. The menu was ambitious – full of strange and inventive combinations that can only work when a chef has an extraordinarily reliable sense of balance.
For instance: "pan fried sea scallop and corn cake served with roasted zucchini, sour cream and sauteed asparagus over a black and navy bean sauce." Every single ingredient except the black beans are or have been on my loathsome list – yet the combination, seasoned and prepared and arranged on the plate at 1618, is surprisingly enjoyable.
The "crispy shrimp and pork meatballs with a spicy lime chipotle cream and daikon radish salad": I almost cried it was so good.
And the fish tacos? I am repelled by the very notion of fish tacos. But these are so good that it's worth leaning over the plate and letting the habanero sauce drip all over your fingers and the plate in order to eat this perfect flavor-and-texture combination.
My wife was in rapture over the mozzarella, fried green tomato and fresh vine-ripened tomato salad. I was happily astonished by the brilliant seafood chowder, which is like none I've ever had before.
And the fish entrees? Usually this far inland you won't find the kind of chef who knows how to bring out the flavors of the fish – you're lucky if the sauces are good. But every entree that showed up at our table pleased everyone.
In short, 1618 immediately shot to the top of our restaurant rotation as the place we're eager to take friends and family to.
Is it perfect in every way? No. The menu is badly in need of an editor who knows how to spell. For instance, bruschetta was misspelled without the h. Admittedly, the incorrect "bruscetta" is spelled the way it's usually mispronounced by untrained waiters – as "bru-shetta."
(Italian "sce" is pronounced like the English sh; Italian "sche" is pronounced like English sk, or the sch in school, so the word is "bru-sket-ah" when pronounced by someone who knows what they're reading.)
Another misspelling was the annoying hyperforeignism that puts a tilde over the n in "habanero." It's probably the influence of "jalapeño," which has the tilde, so the Spanish word is pronounced "ha-la-pain-yo." But habanero has no tilde in Spanish, and is pronounced with a simple n: "ah-bah-nay-ro." No tilde.
And people in a restaurant with food and service and ambience this fine should not be making menu mistakes like a Red Lobster, OK? Those are the rules, and it's a shame 1618 breaks them.
Fortunately, not everyone is a spelling-and-pronunciation-obsessed former copy editor like me, so nobody but me will care.
The other problem is that the sign out on Friendly Avenue leads you to think that the restaurant faces Friendly Avenue. The address is Friendly Avenue, isn't it? But the establishment that faces the street is Leon's hair styling shop, and what they serve is not delicious.
Instead, you drive around behind the building, where you will find (a) plenty of parking places and (b) the restaurant entrance.
Expect the entrees to cost between 20 and 30 bucks, the appetizers 10 to 13. Make a reservation.