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Al Davis, Meet John Leonudakis

September 20, 1987|MAX JACOBSON

Rapscallion, 6550 Irwindale Ave., Irwindale, (818) 969-4242. Open Monday-Friday for lunch, daily for dinner. Full bar. Parking in lot. American Express, Visa and MasterCard accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $40-$60.

When John Leonudakis first heard the announcement that Irwindale planned to build a stadium for the Los Angeles Raiders, you could have knocked him over with a feather. Leonudakis, you see, just opened a restaurant there, a seafood house named Rapscallion, and it's already packed on weekends. Think of what a Raider weekend will bring.

It seems Irwindale was fishing for commercial tenants and caught a fish house. Rapscallion, a copy of the owner's successful restaurant in Reno, was built from the ground up at a cost of more than $2 million.

Reached at his Reno restaurant, Leonudakis remarked: "I'd like to say that I was a genius in picking this location, but the truth is that I had almost nothing to do with it. I was looking to get into the Southern California marketplace, and I heard about Irwindale from the same business associate who found me the Reno location." Perhaps he was being modest.

Modesty is definitely spared in this handsomely appointed restaurant however, designed in the spirit of the clubby seafood grills of San Francisco--like Tadich and Jack's--that Leonudakis admires. Booths are hewn from solid mahogany and the bar is railed in brass. Simple overhead deco lamps lend a refined elegance to the individual, white-linen draped tables, and the ceilings are high and bright. One would be tempted to say it was a Northern California design, but that theory is betrayed by the presence of an open pantry and see-in kitchen. Suffice to say that it's comfortable, and that the unsightly industrial sideshow just outside the door seems far, far away.

Four of us made an impromptu Friday night visit and found another kind of sideshow: a 45-minute wait in a restaurant that seats almost 400. Happily, within five minutes we were able to secure a corner table in the back bar where, we were informed, we could order appetizers. We wasted little time in choosing them.

Steamed clams came in a large crock filled waist deep with a salty broth; they were fresh and delicious. The clams were followed by a chafing dish of perfectly sauteed chanterelles, imperfectly drenched with a garlicky butter sauce. Garlic butter may be a good dipping medium for the chewy loaves of San Francisco-style sourdough the restaurant serves with appetizers but, as a sauce, it's simply too much for the delicate flavor of defenseless forest mushrooms. One of chef Chris Logan's light cream sauces would be a better accompaniment.

The best dish of the evening turned out to be our final appetizer, a gorgeous plate of assorted smoked fish, filled with morsels of tuna, sturgeon, oysters, scallops and butter-like salmon. Each was unique, distinctive and meltingly tender. Pleasing garnishes made it even better: a soft, dilled cheese and grainy sliced pumpernickel. Just as we were about to finish it off, our table was called. By this time, we were almost too content to move.

Once inside the dining room, we were handed a fine list of wines available by the glass. I chose a spicy '85 Bonny Doon Vin Gris, my wife a delicate '83 Robert Young Merlot and my two guests an '85 Quail Ridge chardonnay. We were all happy with our choices--and happy to note that the wines are not excessively marked up.

At last we were able to turn our attention to the extensive dinner menu, which features more than 20 fresh fish and generally between 15 and 20 specials. Fish can be ordered any way you like it--poached, boiled, baked, broiled, sauteed or blanketed in a variety of sauces like homemade salsa or basil cream. Specials show imagination--perhaps too much.

One such dish, Bonita shark with soy sauce, lime, garlic, ginger and fresh salsa, had too many flavors, although the fish was flaky and pungent. Another, a blackened sturgeon--and I mean really blackened--with pecan and bearnaise , was unexceptional, and looked silly with the pecans scattered over the fish.

By contrast, the simpler dishes were wonderful. There were gorgeous sand dabs with lemon butter, lightly breaded razor clams and halibut with a mushroom basil. All main dishes come with an ordinary rice pilaf, even more ordinary mixed vegetables, and a dinner salad. Watch out for the bacon dressing; it's mostly Worcestershire, and I couldn't find a crumb of bacon.

For the most part, Rapscallion is a good, solid restaurant and it looks like it has a bright future. At this point, what Leonudakis should be concerned about is who the Raiders are going to start at quarterback, for it looks as if Rapscallion's starting lineup is set for a while.

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