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NORTH COUNTY RESTAURANTS

Shells Brings Tasty Seafood Fare Inland

May 17, 1990|DAVID NELSON

Shells may be as far from the beach as any spot in Encinitas, but it brings the coastal community's ocean motifs inland with an underwater decor and a primarily seafood menu that one-ups many waterside restaurants.

Probably the biggest highlight on this list is a sort of kitschy dish that may be a 1990s successor to surf and turf, but is nonetheless very tasty and a sure winner. This is the coconut beer batter shrimp, which Shells serves up crisp and copper-colored and in generous portion. There is a hint of spice under the sweet coconut coating, and the sweet-hot sensation carries over to the dipping sauce, a pleasing and unexpectedly piquant blend of orange marmalade and hot mustard.

These shrimp may be the razzle-dazzle on the menu, but there are some other distinctive offerings, including some of the better crab cakes to be found in San Diego County. Shells shapes the meat of Dungeness crab from the chilly waters of the Northwest with a light hand that results in fluffy, delicate cakes. Breaded and browned in hot butter, they are garnished with an herbed mayonnaise that makes a good change from the usual tartar sauce and are served two per order.

The restaurant employs the herbed mayonnaise as garnish for several simply cooked fresh fish. The selection includes Pacific snapper, local swordfish and Alaska halibut. A little farther afield and on a slightly fancier plane, the entree list also offers Florida rock shrimp, which are unusually plump crustaceans endowed with a fine, sweet flavor. On the lighter side, there are a couple of entree-sized salads, including one of crab, lobster and shrimp tossed with--you guessed it--herbed mayonnaise.

All plates are garnished with a selection of sauteed vegetables that recently included broccoli, yellow squash and red bell pepper; there was a slight and likable Oriental undertone to the flavor, a suggestion of soy mingled with a hint of hot seasoning. The universal garnish also includes a serving of fettuccine tossed with a bit of butter and cheese, and while it is good, it is not necessarily as appropriate with the fried dishes, such as the coconut shrimp and the crab cakes, as with the swordfish et al . French fried potatoes, which are served at lunch but not offered at dinner, should be offered as an alternative.

Meals include a basic but well-arranged green salad, offered with any of three home-made dressings. There are several simple starters available, and judging from the number of baskets that issued from the kitchen, the deep-fried squid strips must be the most popular. The soup list offers a shrimp bisque baked under a lid of pastry and, more intriguingly, a French onion that the menu says is flavored with garlic and applesauce. In practice, the applesauce is a threat that does not materialize, since at most it is present as an underlying sweetness. A nice touch that arrives at no extra cost with every meal is the bacon-and-chive flavored cream cheese served with the basket of warm, crusty bread.

The dessert list includes two sweets prepared on premises, a white chocolate mousse and a strawberry shortcake that is so much the real thing that a single bite suggests fireworks and the 4th of July.

SHELLS

162 S. Rancho Santa Fe Road (West Village Shopping Center), Encinitas

632-0072

Dinner served nightly, lunch Monday through Saturday.

Credit cards accepted.

Dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, $35 to $45.

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