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WHY IS this fish smiling? And why am I?
Maybe it's because we're both recalling the line in the movie "Gremlins 2" -- the one about the "chic new Canadian restaurant where they clean the fish right at your table."

Well, at least we can get one thing clear right off the bat. The Smiling Fish Co., Ltd., is definitely not that restaurant.

Canadian it may be; chic it is not. It's new. It's bright. It's spanking clean (they must clean the fish in the back). It's cute as a button and lovable. But its ambiance is definitely paper napkins all the way. Mostly young families occupied the small tables the evening we were there.

There's a small counter, too -- the place sits 40 altogether.

Check the chalkboard to see what's on hand before ordering. Takeout is available, and so is retail fish. The selection is not large -- a good sign. Freshness is all. Everything depends on market conditions.

One standard that you can always get: Fish and Chips. Only the species changes.

One moderate-size piece of haddock set us back $4.79 (Canadian) the other night. It was really good -- a superior golden crisp batter-enclosed fish so fresh it was practically gurgling. We doused it with hearty malt vinegar, though tartar sauce was also on hand.

We thought the sauce, supposedly exclusive to the Smiling Fish, was much too thick.

It was accompanied by some fresh-cut spuds -- good-tasting, but could have been crisper. There was also an enjoyable scoop of freshly made coleslaw with finely diced cabbage.

A worthy evening special was the companion's California Stir-Fry ($8.75). This was a light assemblage of scallops, shrimp and snow peas in a carefully seasoned, slightly thickened soy-flavored sauce. The dish rested on the good fresh flavor of the seafood itself -- not a lot of garnish or glop. The combination was not overly salty, either.

There you have it -- honest food. If I were to change anything in this modest place, it would be the quality of the baked goods. The roll accompanying our entrees was fresh but absolutely cold.

The blueberry pie was equally chilly.

Obviously, the thing to do here is concentrate on creatures from the briny deep.

Baked fish, Cajun blackened fish and chowder are always on hand. Other species include tuna, red snapper, haddock, Atlantic salmon, flying fish and lake perch.

King crab, live lobster, clams, mussels, squid and octopus are also available.

While we're on the subject of small and modest restaurants, let me call to your attention to an even more minute dining place. Da Tha'o, at 3106 Main St. -- not too far from Hertel Avenue -- can accommodate maybe 30 people.

The specialty is Vietnamese food, still something of a rarity in Western New York. We've been to the place only once, but we recommend the crisp Vietnamese-style spring rolls for four ($2.95). And the Da Tha'o Dumpling ($1) was light as air.

As a main course, enjoy the Rice Noodle on Hot and Spicy Soup -- it's spicy, all right, and fine. A great big bowl, enough for two, will set you back $3.95.

Da Tha'o is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until 10:30 Friday and Saturday. No liquor, no credit cards, no air conditioning, no ambiance.

Nice people, though, and good food.

What else do you need when you're hungry?

Second helpings

Restaurants recently reviewed in this space include:

Little White House, 5877 Main St., Williamsville (633-7755).** ( 6/1 5). A large, well-known restaurant with a menu of standard favorites -- evening specials as well.

Butternut Inn, Route 16 and Genesee Road, Chaffee (496-8987).** 1/2 ( 6/8 ). A comfortable and homey country inn, featuring hearty food.

Angelina's Italian Gourmet, 952 Maple Rd., Amherst (689-3011).** ( 6/1 ). Popular and pretty little neighborhood spot in a shopping plaza. Traditional Italian-American food; evening specials particularly recommended.

Glen Iris Inn, Letchworth State Park, Castile (493-2622)* 1/2 ( 5/2 5). Overlooking the Genesee River Falls, the setting is beautiful. But the food tends to be ordinary.

The Smiling Fish Co., Ltd.**
660 Garrison Rd., Fort Erie, Ontario (416-871-9666). Part fish market, part takeout, part restaurant, this spanking- clean little spot has a menu that changes according to market condi tions. Beer and wine only. Visa accept ed.
Best Dish: Fried haddock.
Needs Work: Rolls and pie are stone cold.
Price Range: Fish, chips, coleslaw, one piece, $4.79. California stir fry special with rice, $8.75.
Service: Good.
Hours: Lunch and dinner seven days. Until 9 p.m. Friday. Until 8 p.m. Saturday through Thursday.
Wheelchair Access: Yes.
Key: Stars are awarded for the quality of the food only. fair, good, excellent, extraordinary.

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