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Barracuda's reinvents the great American fish house for the next century. 

Aqua Culture

Barracuda's
2525 Hanover Ave.
Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. daily
Dinner 5-11 p.m. daily
355-7008

Once upon a time in America, diners eager for red meat sought out chop houses. For pizza, they visited the corner carryout; pasta, the trattoria. If you came of age in this culinary galaxy, it's hard to shake the notion that some foods are best in an environment in which the chef is, well, focused.

When we hunger for seafood, some of us go to the coast where we don't have to settle for one or two choices off an eclectic menu. Embracing the idea that seafood is often best enjoyed in restaurants that specialize in it, I welcome Barracuda's to Richmond's lively restaurant scene.

Barracuda's is no throwback. Beyond the sea-blue interior — part Donna Reed and part Miami chic — Barracuda's is very much of its time. Preparations eschew butter and embrace international staples including balsamic vinegar, walnut oil, wasabi, pickled ginger, cilantro and other current flavors. Shrimp scampi is served over angel hair pasta. Poached salmon comes with a warm tomato vinaigrette and spinach and wild rice.

Of 15 entrees, four are landlubbers (ribs, pork tenderloin, a chicken breast and a filet mignon) and three are vegetarian (a walnut salad, an eggplant parmesan and a portobello mushroom, spinach and blue cheese lasagna). I'd kill the ribs and pork in favor of more fish.

Appetizers ($5.75 to $7.95) include fried oysters, mussels and a crab dip. Our golf-ball sized conch fritters ($6.25) were a savory blend of the mollusk breaded and fried and served with a divine mango salsa dipping sauce that tasted as fresh as an island breeze.

Gorgeously presented with a sprig of lemon grass, a dollop of verdant, eye-watering wasabi and slivers of pickled ginger, the Shrimp California rolls ($7.95) were sushi-like slices of a nori wrap around rice and shrimp. I would have liked a more piquant sauce rather than the honeyed bourbon dip.

Barracuda's raw and steamed offerings as well as the catches we sampled possessed that special sweetness present only in the freshest of seafood.

Oysters on the half shell were a nice size and were accompanied by a traditional cocktail sauce — ketchup and horseradish — that was made-at-home fresh. We reveled in the half-pound of hot steamed shrimp. Cayenne clung prettily to the shells, which peeled off with ease, revealing tender three-bite shrimp.

Grilled snapper ($13) was a generous portion of the firm-fleshed, lean fish. What set it apart was the inventive crawfish andouille stuffing. But this lovely dish — accompanied as are all the entrees by the evening's vegetable (sautéed yellow squash and zucchini) — paled in comparison to the Southern Fried Catfish.

A bargain at $10, the catfish portion was a plump serving of succulent, meltingly tender, farm-raised, sweet fish deep-fried to perfection — crusty and golden on the outside and as delicate as hand-churned ice cream inside. An elegant bacon remoulade topped the portion. The plate's star was the huge sweet potato pancake that won points for originality and for appropriateness in joining this tender fish.

For dessert, we shared a delectable carrot cake and a German chocolate cheesecake. But these sweets were afterthoughts.

It's clear that whoever is doing the shopping here knows fish. Freshness is the secret to all good cooking and with simply prepared fish, error shows in the first bite. Any home cook who does fish knows finding the most pristine in fish and shellfish is a struggle. When we dine out, we expect the chef to do better than we can do for ourselves. At Barracuda's, I sense I can rely on their judgment far beyond my own.

With the melange of flavors and the attention to freshness here, I applaud the arrival of what well could be the great American fish house of the next century. I look forward to seeing what Barracuda's does
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