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CHEAP EATS

Fresh fish at the right price

Email|Print| Text size + By Sacha Pfeiffer
April 26, 2007

Home cooks are painfully aware of the markups we pay for the luxury of eating out.

That chicken you buy for a few bucks at the grocery store can easily cost triple that at a restaurant, but we willingly pay this premium because dining out is a pleasure in itself.

Still, I blanched when I recently ate at a seafood restaurant - I won't name names, but let's just say it got its start in Cambridge and is now a well-known national chain - and my piece of fish cost nearly $25. Steep! I could have bought a pound of the stuff at my local grocer and prepared it just as well at home.

That's why I'm so pleased I discovered Moultons, where the quality is just as high but the bill won't leave you feeling light-headed.

For most of its existence, this West Medford restaurant was a small fish store, a throwback to pre-supermarket days when many neighborhoods had their own butchers and fishmongers. Opened by the Moulton family in 1945, it also sold takeout fish and chips.

When the business changed hands about a decade ago, the owners sensed untapped potential. So they put in a 50-seat dining room, got a beer-and-wine license, and added a pretty little bar. Suddenly, Moultons was a full-fledged restaurant.

Here's why I've become so fond of this place: The seafood is reliably fresh, thanks to the cook's trips to Boston's piers each morning to peruse the daily catch. He buys whatever looks promising and is reasonably priced, and he passes the good deals along to you. Most of the seafood dinners are around $12, and they rival anything I've eaten at higher-priced competitors. The restaurant also tries to stock only enough for that day, so items sometimes sell out. But, admirably, it would rather run out of food today than sell day-old fish tomorrow.

Moultons understands that fresh fish needs very little seasoning. Often, a squeeze of lemon is enough. That's how our meaty grilled swordfish ($11.95) and flaky grilled salmon ($10.95) were prepared. Sweet, plump, broiled scallops ($12.95) were outstanding with a light breadcrumb coating.

Whether you're craving hearty food or a light meal, the menu has it. Most dinner items are available grilled, baked, broiled, fried, Cajun, blackened, or over pasta. And most are served with tartar sauce, pleasingly sweet cole slaw, and rice, baked potato, fries, baked beans, or mixed vegetables. Don't expect much from those veggies; they're previously frozen, and they taste it.

Steak, chicken, sausage, ribs, burgers, hot dogs, even BLTs are also available. But that's not where Moultons excels. The only meal we didn't like was oily fried chicken and broccoli over bland fettuccine ($12.95). As my mother-in-law sagely said after trying a forkful: "When you're at a seafood restaurant, you should order seafood."

So go for the spicy blackened tuna ($13.95); crunchy sauteed shrimp ($8.95); or briny mussels ($9.95) bathed in fine garlicky white wine sauce. Fried clams, in a nearly greaseless flour-cornmeal batter, were tremendous. Even halibut ($14.95), a white fish that can taste boring, was a winner when paired with tomatoey Cajun sauce spiked with cayenne.

Prices are reasonable (stuffed clams and crab cakes cost less than five bucks, and a fish sandwich is $6.95), portions are generous, and service is good, although ambience is a bit sterile. The carpeted dining room is plain - white walls, fake flowers, paper napkins and place mats - and elevator music plays overhead. But you're here for the food, remember?

I wish I knew whether I liked the desserts ($2.99), but the chocolate fudge cake and carrot cake arrived partially frozen, so they were too cold to have much taste. Come to think of it, I should thank Moultons for saving me - a sucker for sweets - from the gratuitous calories.

MOULTONS RESTAURANT

Cuisine: Seafood

Address: 178 Winthrop St., Medford

Phone: 781-781-6466

Hours: Tue-Thu noon-9 p.m., Fri-Sat noon-10 p.m., Sun & Mon closed.

Prices: Appetizers $3.95-$9.95. Sandwiches $4.95-$9.95. Dinners $6.95-$15.99. Several seafood items, including lobster, vary with market price.

May We Suggest: Fried clams, broiled scallops, grilled swordfish, grilled salmon, blackened tuna, Cajun halibut.

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