Remember fish and chips? I had almost forgotten about it because I generally find grilled, pan-fried and roasted fish superior to battered and deep-fried.
Fish and chips was always a kind of a guilty pleasure for me, greasy, not too healthy, but good doused with some malt vinegar and smeared with ketchup and tartar sauce. Good with beer, too. But I moved on.
Yet after a few meals at Cook’s Seafood in Menlo Park, I realized that I have been missing out. When prepared well, as it is here, fish and chips is worth rediscovering. If you’ve never stopped eating it, consider Cook’s an upgrade.
There are several things that set the restaurant apart. One, there’s a fish market connected to Cook’s that boasts an impressive selection of fresh fish. The market happens to be the seafood source for one of Silicon Valley’s best-known tech moguls, which means that the fish that goes into the deep fryer comes straight from the boat—and that makes a difference. Fresh fish is better-tasting fish.
Two, the batter is applied judiciously. The thin, crunchy crust doesn’t overwhelm the fish within, and the cornmeal-based batter seems to ward off the oil. Three, Cook’s offers a wide variety of fried fish. There’s cod, a fish and chips classic, but you can also choose from wild Alaskan salmon, sand dabs, local and Alaskan halibut, tuna, scallops, oysters, sole, catfish, calamari and Oregon shrimp. That’s an impressive list.
The restaurant itself is a pretty straightforward deal. Open since 1928, the owners figured things out long ago. Keep it simple and keep it fresh. Order at the counter, get a number and take a seat in the clean, well-lighted dining room. There are maritime and commercial fishing images on the wall to get you in the spirit of things.
Local halibut is not only a delicious, mild-tasting meaty fish, it’s caught by hook and line, an ocean-friendly method that avoids by-catch. Battered and fried, it’s a clean and light-tasting meal. At five pieces for $9.95, it’s good deal.
Sand dabs are a favorite of mine, lightly dusted in flour and sautéed in butter and finished with a squeeze of lemon and maybe a few capers. I have never had them fried before, but I like them. The little fillets ($7.99) are crispy and still moist and sweet inside. The tartar sauce is good, but I still prefer the simplicity of a good squirt of lemon juice. A word about the chips, a.k.a. french fries. They’re good, long wedges with the skin left on, crispy outside and fluffy inside, the way a fry should be.
Fish and chips is the star of the show, but there are other items worth seeking out. If fried fish isn’t your thing, how about grilled fish? You can choose from grilled wild salmon and halibut fillet (both $8.99) served between slices of toasted multigrain bread.
I tried the halibut, which is good but needs a few more condiments, i.e., red onion, caper aioli or arugula. I’m all for simplicity but the sandwich was too bare bones, and the toasted sandwich bread isn’t doing it any favors. How about French bread or a Francese roll? Better are the burgers: breaded slabs of salmon or halibut served on old-fashioned, squishy hamburger buns.
The soups are good, too. The clam chowder ($3.29–$12.99) is sweet and briny with a not-too-thick cream base. The cioppino ($5.29–$20.99) is a winner. The tomatoey broth is light and aromatic and loaded with shellfish and fresh fish. The cole slaw ($1.29–$6.99) gets points for being a creamy, vinegar-spiked salad that marries well with the fish.
The restaurant attracts a cross-section of suits, Stanford students and blue-collar workers who know a good thing and a good deal when they see it. And Cook’s is a good thing.