Restaurant Review - A good catch

Famous Fish Co. hooks Peachtree City

"Just so you know," says the youthful manager-on-duty, as he crouches in front of the table to take our order, "the menu says that Pan 4 comes with four prawns, but we got in these big-ass king prawns today. I mean, they're freakin' huge, so you'll probably only get two prawns with the dish."

Thus begins my first meal at Famous Fish Co., a small, tri-continental chain with outposts in South Africa and London that chose Peachtree City as their first American venture (owner Bruce Scott has friends in the area). The restaurant is housed in the center of an outdoor mall complex called the Avenues, surrounded by the standard assortment of Gaps and Williams-Sonomas. Perhaps because it was a concept developed outside the U.S., there's something about this place that feels less cloying and mass-produced than other chains (though the pamphlet menu is still filled with too-cute language and menu marketing cliches like "sauteed to perfection.")

In a unique take on service, the gregarious managers who dash swiftly around the room have been bestowed with the most up-to-date information about the ever-changing varieties of fish and shellfish being offered, so they explain the specials and place orders. Other servers with softer voices and docile smiles take drink orders and periodically stop by to ask if there's anything else they can bring.

The menu is a hodge-podge of fishy themes, anchored by the house specialty: five skillets — or "pans" — stuffed to the gills with seafood, rice and fries. The aforementioned Pan 4 ($19.95) comes with large round loops of calamari, surprisingly tender mussels nearly the size of a thumb, a moist fillet of fish (flounder the night I tried it) and those whopping prawns, split down the middle and so big they could be mistaken for small lobster tails. Size definitely counts in this joint. At the bottom of the pan is a handy layer of garlic lemon butter for swiping bites of prawn or flavoring the bland rice pilaf.

Like the pans, the ingredient lists for most of the dishes on the menu are mighty long, though some pay off remarkably well. The Schlöegel salad ($7.50) is a mound of lettuce with tomato, basil, olives and avocado, studded with oblong chunks of fried mozzarella that disappear long before the rest of the jumble. I love that the fried mozzarella is fresh — what a silky variation from the rubbery frozen sticks I grew up eating in the '70s.

Appetizers are a mixed lot. Mussels Murphy ($6) are gigantic specimens flown in from New Zealand and served in an easy-to-love tomato sauce laced with cream and white wine that makes for darn good dunking material. Shrimp cocktail ($7.95) veers from the traditional Yankee accompaniment of cocktail sauce and is instead served on a decidedly more British bed of lettuce with avocado and a mild curry sauce. It's a tasty change of pace. But a large fishcake ($8.95), also served over lettuce, is lackluster and doesn't have the right balance of fish and potato. And calamari ($5.50), splayed over rice, is better as one of the many ingredients in the pan dishes than in a solo spotlight.

Neither am I taken with the restaurant's paella, which is served slightly wet and therefore comes off more like risotto than paella, particularly the shellfish and mushroom variation ($13.95) topped with parmesan cheese. The seafood paella ($15.95) is the best of the three. It strikes the right balance with a combination of chicken, prawns and shellfish.

Kudos are in order for the fish 'n' chips ($10). I'm glad the chef resists the batter trap by lightly coating chunks of cod in seasoned flour and serving them crispy with a stack of fries. No one will shake their head in disappointment if you ask for a side of ketchup.

If anyone who dislikes fish is dragged here against their will, the menu has three landlubber entree options, the best of which is Carr's sirloin steak ($19.95). The steak is grilled, stuffed with shrimp (OK, so the dish isn't completely seafood-free), covered with an orange-ish cheese sauce and accompanied by creamed spinach and fries. It is a completely American, all-chain-all-the-time contrivance, but it hits the spot if you're in the mood for that sort of thing.

There's really only one dessert worth trying: Auntie Stienie's South African malva pudding ($5.50). It's a hot sponge cake that tastes like a cross between French toast and bread pudding, soaked in brandy butter sauce with cream on the side. Trust me, you'll be so full after the huge entrees that you can skip their sundaes and order one malva for the table.

Despite the uneven offerings, there's something catchy about this restaurant. The cooks have a sure hand with fish, and, when dinner service is in full swing and voices are ringing off the restaurant's large glass windows, it's a fun, lively place to hang out with friends. I may not make the trip down to Peachtree City on a regular basis, but if they opened a branch inside the Perimeter, I'd pop in for some big-ass prawns every now and then.