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DAVID NELSON ON RESTAURANTS

Rock Lobster Is No Puerto Nuevo Clone, but Imaginative Menu Is Likable Enough

October 07, 1988|DAVID NELSON

Anyone taking a drive along Mission Gorge Road may think that an oversize lobster has scrambled inland to get away from the coastal damps and fogs, because there, during dinner hours, a young woman in a lobster suit can be observed waving her copious claws at passing motorists.

The lady with the claws serves as an attractive shill for the new Rock Lobster Cafe y Cantina, a casual and rather likable eatery that specializes in lobster and other shellfish. Its stated intention is to prepare them in the style of Puerto Nuevo, the "lobster village" a few miles south of Rosarito Beach, but the Puerto Nuevo style seems resistant to importation.

Although the cooking at Rock Lobster generally is quite good, it does not duplicate the intense and illusive flavors found at the best Puerto Nuevo houses; these places use lard as the cooking element and reuse it through the day until it has become an unimaginably rich emulsion of fat and lobster juices. A couple of other area restaurants have tried the Puerto Nuevo approach, with middling success.

Puts on a Cheerful Face

Rock Lobster does put on a cheerful Mexican face, however, and serves up its imaginative menu with bowls of beans and rice, baskets of hot tortillas and other customary table trappings from south of the border. The menu could be more convenient, however; it takes the form of wall-mounted posters spaced around the two dining rooms, and not every table is close enough for a good look.

The waiters, who seem unusually well trained, take up the slack by offering lengthy descriptions of the available plates, peppered with recommendations and useful information about portion sizes. (A serving of Australian "slipper tail" lobsters, for example, provides much more meat than a single spiny lobster, and at about the same price.)

The choice of lobsters is much wider than one would expect, ranging from the local type ("local," in this instance, extends to specimens caught in Mexican waters) to 2-pound Maine lobsters and Florida rock lobsters, oversize tails from Papua New Guinea and the tiny "slipper tails" from Down Under.

The shrimp selection is equally impressive, offering typical pink shrimp, tiger prawns and, nicest of all, the succulent Santa Barbara prawns that feature a lobster-like texture and a fine, deep flavor. The menu also lists a fish of the day, filet mignon, a spit-roasted half-chicken and scallops in red pepper sauce.

With the exception of the Maine lobster, which is steamed, and one shrimp dish, all of the crustaceans are marinated in garlic and a bit of spice and "flash-fried" (to use the waiter's term) in cottonseed oil. The results vary somewhat, but the general effect is tender seafood that retains much of its juice.

Single Intact Shrimp

The Santa Barbara prawns came off best of the three dishes sampled. These were fat beauties, and they offered a really full, satisfying flavor of the sort that frequently is lacking in ordinary shrimp. Rock Lobster cooks them in the shell and serves them unpeeled, the pile of tails cleverly garnished with a single, whole specimen (head intact) that gave an exact impression of what the guest was about to eat. Spaniards, Italians and Chinese like to do this, but Americans tend to be squeamish on this point, and it was refreshing to see a plate that actually emphasized the food it bore.

Ordinary shrimp did well in a preparation called "banana shrimp," which teamed sauteed-in-the-shell shrimp with a mild butter-cilantro sauce and banana halves, still in the peel, that had been charred on the grill and featured quite an exceptional flavor. This plate likewise was garnished with one intact shrimp.

All the shells from these two dishes, by the way, were simply deposited by the diners on the sheet of white paper that served in lieu of tablecloth. The practice is like that at the fancier Chesapeake Bay crab houses, which cover their tables with sheets of brown paper (rowdier joints use newspapers); when the meal is through, the server merely has to scoop up the paper and voila!--a clean table.

The waiter suggested that the princeliest of lobsters prepared in the Puerto Nuevo style would be the 14-ounce Papua tail, and, at $17.95, it certainly was the costliest. (The basic, less meaty, local lobster goes for $9.95.) It was, of course, frozen, and, at present, that alone would make it less appealing than the native favorite, but it also had such a girth that the cooking process inevitably toughened it somewhat. The flavor was fine, but not especially pronounced.

The plates arrived garnished with limes and sprigs of cilantro, both of which were used to advantage. Little pots of what looked like melted butter, but which tasted rather oily, turned out to be butter and margarine in a 2-to-1 ratio; pure butter would seem to be the better idea, but the issue blurs when current cholesterol concerns are taken into account. What is incontestable is that combining butter and margarine saves the restaurant money.

Rather Good Beans

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