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CHARLES PERRY ON RESTAURANTS

Mussels And Pasta Served In A New York Setting

November 28, 1986|CHARLES PERRY

It does make you think of New York: a long, skinny room like a railroad flat with mirrors on the walls to make it look bigger and lots of dark wood around the bar (though there's a suspicious West Coast profusion of plants over that bar).

But of course you know it's not New York, because it's clearly full of Californians. Conversation doesn't drip with big-city knowingness and gallows humor. Nobody's braced for the ordeal of going back on the street, not in quiet Fullerton. And I'd say the presence of a book about Fullerton landmark buildings on the piano also helps spoil the illusion.

However, Mulberry Street Ristorante, which advertises itself as a New York Style Restaurant and Bar, surely has a Big Apple sound level. California is a quiet place, ominously quiet, New Yorkers say--we can go days or weeks without hearing an auto horn. At Mulberry Street, with its exposed brick and masses of wood and mirror (and no acoustic tile in the ceiling), the only sound-absorbent materials are the ones that walk in, and they're not very efficient: slim Californians in light, warm-climate clothes. The crowd works up a real din at dinner time, and the warm, buzz-sawing sound can be a welcome change from our everlasting peace and quiet.

As for the food, the menu is perhaps not as New York as it might be. I do not see the word scungilli, nor any trace of that extraterrestrial dialect of Italian the world knows as Sicilian. It would pass out here as a conservative Italian menu specializing in seafood and pasta, without the trademark California elements of carpaccio and exotic pizzas (there's no pizza at all, in fact).

The seafood can be pretty good, and probably the best thing on the menu is the Mulberry Street Feast, a massive entree of clams, mussels, scallops, shrimp, fish and calamary in clam sauce on a bed of linguine. The shrimp are quite good in the Feast, which puzzles me, because five of what are presumably the same giant shrimp figure in the shrimp cocktail (at $7.95, it's half the price of the Feast and by far the most expensive appetizer on the menu). I say presumably the same shrimp, because the ones in the cocktail are little more than cold protein.

A far better appetizer is the steamed mussels, which are very plump and good with a pot of drawn butter to dip them in. There's a workmanlike fettuccine alfredo as well, with flecks of spinach in the sauce on the homemade pasta. The salads are also a little better than ordinary. The spinach salad, along with the usual bacon, hard-boiled egg and mushroom, has cooked onions and a thick powdering of black pepper in the sharp dressing.

Apart from the seafood feast, the menu is on the whole reassuringly Italian and not much more. The lasagna is full of cheese with a fresh tomato sauce and a welcome bowl of fresh-grated Parmesan, but the best thing about it is the garlic bread that comes on the side. Shrimp Fra Diavolo is mildly uncommon out here, and it's as nice a version as I've come across of this dish of shrimp in what is, by Italian standards, a devilishly hot tomato sauce. The eggplant parmigiana is emphatically browned on the bottom, and anybody who doesn't share my taste for scorched vegetables of the Solanaceae family (in this case, tomatoes and eggplant) may find it somewhat coarse. The fettuccine carbonara is very tasty with rather a lot of bacon in the cream sauce.

But the veal piccata and the fried calamari are complete snoozers, dishes you could fall asleep over. And the pork pizzaiola (the most unusual dish on the menu), has the kind of tomato sauce with mushrooms and bell peppers (plus a hint of garlic and, the menu says, sherry) that is slightly raucous from the tomatoes but neither somehow sweet enough nor sour enough to do anything memorable to the pork, which lies sullen and neglected beneath it. Except for the pastas, all entrees come with very nice thin-sliced fried squash with a loud dose of black pepper and oregano, and some very stodgy mostaccioli with cream sauce.

Desserts include somewhat dry but lusciously frosted chocolate cake with walnuts, a rich and rather nondescript coconut cake, and two cheesecakes: a traditional cheesy model and a pretty successful chocolate version. At lunch, entrees run $4.75-$8.95. At dinner, appetizer prices are $3.25-$7.95 and entrees $5.95-$15.95. There is a convenient late supper menu, mostly appetizers plus a burger, at $4-$8.25.

For The Record: My last column gave the erroneous impression that Tavern by the Sea's Robert Helstrom had been the chef at the old Pave. He wasn't the chef--he was a chef. My apologies to David Wilhelm, who was the chef, for the confusion.

MULBERRY STREET 114 W. Wilshire Ave., Fullerton

(714) 525-1056

Open for lunch, Monday through Friday; for dinner, daily. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.

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