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Fish in flux

High tide hankerings for old favorites satisfied with fresh new finds at Atlantic Seafood

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For reasons that can never be explained -- these things come and go in cycles, you know -- I have been getting a lot of requests for recommendations for good seafood restaurants. That's a tough one in the suburbs, unless you count Thai and Japanese restaurants. And even then, the pickings are slim.

But the requests reminded me of one of the more spectacular dishes I've had during the many years I've been reviewing restaurants in Gwinnett: the West Indies Salad at Atlantic Seafood. I remember well the day I first was introduced to it. It didn't sound like much -- "fresh crab meat over salad" is the way the menu described it, as I recall. And when it arrived at the table, it looked thoroughly unimpressive, a mismatched collection of shredded carrots and purple cabbage piled on top of ripped greens. The bland-looking beige crabmeat was plopped in a scallop-shaped dish on the side. I picked at a piece of crab, expecting the worst. Instead, an astonishing tanginess burst in my mouth, a result of the freshness of the crab and the touches of minced onion and lime juice. Happily recalling that, I made a beeline to Atlantic Seafood to sample it again.

It isn't on the menu anymore.

"Why not?" I cried, incredulous when the restaurant's owner gave me the bad news.

"We had it on the menu for a year," she said mournfully, "but no one wanted it."

I cannot fathom such a thing, and I hope Atlantic Seafood tries again now that expectations for suburban dining are rising.

In the meantime, the absence of the beloved West Indies Salad is not the only change in the menu. Whereas the offerings once were limited and their preparations simple, the results were highly satisfying, thanks to the freshness of the main ingredients and the spices employed in the restaurant's three cooking styles: Cajun, Mediterranean-style (milder) and my favorite, lemon-peppered.

Those choices are gone, too, replaced by a handful of pasta with seafood dishes and plain fried or grilled fish. Seasoning is now limited to lemon-butter sauce, which comes with everything unless you speak up. Do speak up; ask for the sauce on the side. There's nothing wrong with it, although it is far too salty for my taste, but you are always better off controlling the amount of any sauce yourself.

This is particularly true if you order the crab claws, a whopping half pound -- two dozen -- for only $9.99. Too much of the salty butter sauce destroys their sweet flavor, so you'll want to avoid it. But otherwise, they are a pleasure to eat, especially since the kitchen has done all the dirty work of removing the tenacious shells.

I am pleased to report that Atlantic Seafood's fresh fish is as good as ever. But in some cases, apparently responding to its customers' wishes, a few dishes that used to be more bold have been toned down. A thick, tomato-based seafood gumbo, for example, that once boasted a dense, spicy flavor is thinner now. And while that development is disappointing, the gumbo remains loaded with plenty of fresh fish, shellfish and okra.

Today, though, I'd recommend the New England clam chowder because of its more substantial body. Substantial, but not heavy with cream, just a nice blend of small cubed potatoes and bits of celery among the clams.

The oyster po' boy won't be what you expect if you are counting on the New Orleans version. But it can be better. Atlantic Seafood's sandwich is plain as plain can be, just lightly breaded and nicely fried oysters and a strand or two of shredded lettuce on a short French-bread bun. Doctor it yourself with the sauces in bottles on each table -- a mayonnaise-heavy tarter sauce, a snappy cocktail sauce and good old Texas Pete Hot Sauce. What is to be appreciated in this case is the quality of the seafood and the quality of the frying.

Service, I regret to tell you, is not great; too often it's slow or even, on occasion, non-existent. If you are an optimist, consider this your opportunity to look around at the wonderful interior, with its thickly impastoed marine blue walls, happy murals, tiny frosted sconces and the traditional mounted blue marlin. And you will have plenty of time to finish that succulent catfish, boneless flounder or whole rainbow trout.

Your best bet in choosing among these and other fish is to ask Atlantic Seafood's proprietor what's fresh. It will make her day to know she has customers who actually care. Then maybe we can get the West Indies Salad back.

amy.jinknerlloyd@creativeloafing.com

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