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Surf's Up

Emily's Ocean Grill flooded with glorious fish dishes



Hardcore beachcombers know the joy of unexpected seaside discovery. We had a similar thrill upon discovering Emily's Ocean Grill and Steakhouse in Woodland Park. Tucked between the movie theater and a pizza joint is a little fishy gem.

OK, it's not at the seaside. But its blessedly understated fishing dcor -- wooden tackle blocks, nets, seashells, papier-mch fish -- suggests that it could be, and the freshness of its menu suggests it should be. Next time you yearn for seafood, head up the pass.

Tough choices start with the appetizers: Shrimp? Calamari? Oysters? Mussels? Crab? Most of the appetizers had interesting twists on traditional preparations. The oysters, six on the half shell, came as a variation of Oysters Rockefeller, but with a dollop of lobster hollandaise. Mussels, generally as good as gold when simply steamed in garlic and wine, are given a Southwestern turn when topped with salsa, Jack and cheddar cheeses.

The crab cakes, baked to a perfect crispness, were, well, crabby; their spicy zing nicely balanced by a lobster-infused Alfredo sauce. The calamari was fresh, not frozen, and fried delicately, delicious even without its marinara dipping sauce, and worth fighting for with the sauce. Our favorite was the stuffed mushrooms, packed with a shrimp, crab and spinach mixture, and finished with the same lobster hollandaise as the oysters. There were six of us at the table; the appetizers were gone in moments and, had we not remembered what was still to come, we'd have ordered another round. Or two.

All entrees come with soup or salad and we chose some of both (with some grumbling that the chowder was New England style and not Manhattan). All grumbles ceased when the chowder appeared, served in colorful fiesta-ware mugs. Piping hot, rich with cream and butter, potatoes cooked soft but not mushy, and clams everywhere. I can cancel those frequent airlifts from Newport's Black Pearl Restaurant, notorious for its chowder. Their equal is now a short drive away.

The salads were fresh and lively, and then we were off to the entrees. I should say it took us longer to decide on dinner than it usually does. Everything sounded wonderful, from the regular menu to the catches of the day to the curious Italian meatloaf special.

Pasta lovers can select Scallops Provenal with fettuccine or Shrimp Emily -- bowtie pasta tossed with shrimp, mushrooms, onions and red peppers in a lobster Alfredo sauce. For a splurge, Emily's offers a baked Santa Fe lobster, stuffed with tomatoes, chilies and cheeses.

We were dazzled by the variety of the fresh fish available. Hawaiian Ono, mahi-mahi and wahoo, Florida grouper, Arctic char, Atlantic salmon, Pacific snapper and halibut. On other days in other seasons, one might find tilapia, cod, sea bass, escolar, swordfish and other surprises that might have swum our way, courtesy of the various distributors who deliver daily.

Freshness, of course, is the key to a successful seafood restaurant. We sampled the wahoo, halibut, salmon, grouper and snapper. Each was prepared differently and each was excellent. The sauted halibut was delicate and flavorful. The snapper was blackened but not overpowered by its seasoning, the charbroiled grouper was so good I didn't want to share, and the poached salmon was heavenly.

All came with rice or baby red potatoes and green beans flavored with red pepper and onion; all ranged in price from $11.95 to $15.95. Prime rib at $19.95 and the Santa Fe lobster at $26.95 are the most expensive items; with most appetizers hovering under $8.00, and most entrees under $18.00, Emily's is eminently affordable.

We even tried the Italian meatloaf, made from trimmings from the sirloin and filets that appear on the carnivorous side of the menu (yes, there's plenty of beef, chicken and pork for your fish-phobic friends). I never expected to use "meatloaf" and "terrific" in the same sentence, but our waitress was right in her recommendation.

And we were right to trust her. She's Carol DiMenna, the co-owner with husband Jon DiMenna, the wizard in the kitchen. They started Emily's last fall, and have been working at a fever pitch ever since, serving lunch and dinner five days a week. There's good reason Jon opted for seafood when, after years of working in area restaurants, he opened Emily's. He's an East Coast native and grew up in Florida where his dad opened Ron Jon's, one of the first surf shops.

Besides plenty of experience and expertise, Jon's got lots of ideas for upcoming features, like an Undecided Fish Lover's Special, a kebab-style entre with different fish, or offering some piquant and unusual dipping sauces. Weekend brunch at Emily's is typically on Saturday, though they will be open for Mother's Day.

Many of the dinner dishes are available at lunchtime, as are a variety of salads, sandwiches and special features (like a smoked salmon pizza and Ocean Grill pasta with fish and shrimp). And, of course, the same fish-of-the-day offerings will make your lunchtime selections as difficult as our evening decisions were.

There's a paucity of good, fresh seafood, well-prepared and reasonably priced in the Pikes Peak region, which might explain why a chain as mediocre as Red Lobster generally wins "Best Place for Seafood" awards. Try Emily's Ocean Grill; next time such a survey comes around, you can really vote for a winner.

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