C&S Seafood & Oyster Bar: Great expectations 

Looking for love and finding cautious affection

"How are you all doing tonight?" our charming and deep-voiced waiter booms at us as we arrive at our table at C&S Seafood & Oyster Bar. Before we have a chance to respond, he says, "I have a basket of our truffle potato chips coming out to you as a nice ice-breaker, and I'll be back in a minute!"

The service at C&S is friendly, professional and a wee bit overbearing. When our waiter does return – our thin, crispy, truffle-oil and Parmesan-flecked chips in hand (which we were charged $8 for, despite the fact that we did not order them) – he takes quite a few minutes to describe in detail each section of the menu, as if we were too daft to read the headings ourselves. But overenthusiasm is hardly a crime.

There is plenty to love about C&S. The menu is an astute mix of old-school New York and Paris brasserie. Servers are done up in crisp whites, and the decor smartly channels that grand restaurant feel of the early 20th century, with clubby banquettes, orbs of warm light, and polished wood and brass. The grand feel of the place is even more of an accomplishment because the space is actually long and thin and not that grand at all – it used to be an Eckerd pharmacy. It could easily feel like a diner, but instead it exudes class.

All of this proves C&S knows its customers. The restaurant, which opened in May of this year, is nestled into a Kroger shopping center on Cobb Parkway (that also houses Thai Diner and Tomo Sushi), and most of the older, well-dressed patrons appear absolutely thrilled to be eating at such a swank establishment. Indeed, the place is packed – on a Tuesday or a Saturday night, the energy is unmistakable.

The menu is dominated by classics: oysters on the half-shell, oysters Rockefeller, shrimp cocktail, steaks, sides. The one place where chef Jon Schwenk gets inventive is with the fish dishes, although all the fish is available simply grilled or broiled as well. These forays into creativity are where all the high points of the menu reside. Schwenk knows how to handle fish, and he knows how to put together flavors that are interesting and pleasing without being too challenging. Salmon is served over potato and asparagus hash, which is both rich and fresh, crunchy and creamy. Trout comes with Brussels sprouts and bacon butter – a little smoke, a little mountain stream, a little green crunch, and a whole lot of balance and flavor.

In fact, I was almost uniformly wowed by the fish dishes, and underwhelmed by everything else. The C&S platter of oysters, clams, shrimp and crab is really the reason I walked through the door, but the crabmeat was rubbery, and the wide variety of oysters all seemed to have lost their integrity. They were fresh and clean-tasting, but had none of that bracing ocean quality left, and seemed to disintegrate on the palate rather than melt. Cherry stone clams had more bright and briny flavor, but that rubbery crabmeat appeared again in the crab cocktail. Steaks were pleasing and expensive, although they do come with one side, which is a nice touch.

A few of the classics lived up to expectations – the escargot was sufficiently garlic- and butter-laden without veering into overkill or mushiness, and the New England clam chowder provided the creamy comfort demanded of that particular soup.

But oh, the disappointment of the $14 lobster roll at lunch, a sad little hot-dog bun with a meager amount of overly dressed and disguised lobster. And the letdown of the personality-free desserts; the stale donut texture of the profiteroles, the rich but predictably cloying flavor of the chocolate cake. Bring back the fish dishes! Bring back the scallops appetizer, fat and lovely and flavored with just a smattering of bacon and mint!

Or just bring some more wine. The wine list is fantastic, over 150 bottles strong and with a smart, seafood-friendly selection of house wines available by the carafe.

There's a lot of thought going into the food, the feel and the hospitality here. On one visit I saw the management react with speed and utter grace when a small child created a calamity at one of the tables. And these waiters know their stuff – but enough with the hard-sell approach to service, and definitely enough with the sneaky add-ons to the bill.

I want to love C&S, for what it's trying to be and what it could be if it lived up to its potential. But love is too strong a word. Cautious affection is about all I can muster.


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