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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Fin's Most Adept at Grill : The roasted seafood is also good, but avoid the mushy pasta and stick to the simplest offerings.

August 28, 1992|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Fin's Seafood Grill is one of the few upscale dinner houses on Westlake Boulevard, a street that could easily pass for an esplanade in a national park. There's a lot of wood and dark forest green in this Westlake Village restaurant too, where the somber, clubby dining room is brightened a bit by a sprinkling of plants and fresh flowers. Maybe someday the woodsy environment will induce someone here to lose the glass tabletops.

You'll probably angle for a table on the raised platform near the front door, the dining area filled with the most natural light. (When it isn't overly hot in the West Valley, you might exercise the option of dining alfresco on the makeshift patio.) The rear of the restaurant is the province of high-backed wooden booths, where you can hide from the world. That includes the waitresses, who may fail to notice you.

Back at the front, you are given early warning that the charms of this restaurant are well-balanced by its flaws. Everyone starts out with some perfectly good sourdough bread that gains nothing from an oily garlic-butter topping and a relish tray of crunchy carrot and celery sticks astride fat, canned-tasting green and black olives.

The next clue is this restaurant's large, somewhat unfocused menu, which spans every seafood specialty dish from crab cakes to blackened ahi . If you've guessed that this kitchen is overly ambitious, you've guessed right. The best things it does tend to be the simplest: chowders and soups, mesquite-grilled fish, anything broiled on a skewer.

The exception to that rule are the Maryland crab cakes, served in a creamy pool of Dijon mustard sauce. Don't be put off by the fact that these cakes are deep-fried instead of sauteed in the usual way. They are exactly like the ones I ate between two slices of sourdough (minus the garlic butter) in the now-defunct Eastern Market in Washington, D.C.--so good that I'm putting them in my crab cake Hall of Fame. The outer skin is virtually greaseless, and the finely shredded lump crab meat inside has been deviled expertly with dry mustard and aromatic spices.

Fin's lobster bisque also deserves praise, even if it is not quite so complex a preparation. This is a frothy, creamy bisque colored a jack-o'-lantern orange, with the intense flavors of lobster meat, lobster coral and saffron permeating every spoonful. At $3.50, it's also only 75 cents per cup more than the restaurant's unremarkable clam chowder. There are good salads, like tomato anchovy with onion and capers and a biting Caesar tossed with hot-and-spicy blackened chicken.

Too bad that some of the more creative starters don't come off as well. The buffalo shrimp are deep-fried in a light batter, but the dish is all but ruined by a dreadful, Tabasco-based marinade and a bland and runny blue-cheese dressing. I'd call Fin's bouillabaisse more of a caldo siete mares, the fish soup you get in a Mexican restaurant. It's a big bowlful of chunked sea bass, mussels, shrimp and calamari rings, among other things, all done in by an overly salty, sour herbal broth.

Look to a little pink checklist on your table for the fresh fish on hand. I've had blackened sea bass, yellowtail with ginger-lemon sauce and pan-fried sand dabs, and they were all good, despite minor flaws. Fin's blackens any fish except sand dabs on request and does a good job, the blackening spices forming a delicate crust on the surface of the fish. The huge, prime fillet of yellowtail, an oily fish, stands up nicely to mesquite grilling. Ask for it without the watery, insipid ginger-lemon sauce, which only detracts from its appeal.

The pastas are mushy and overcooked, but this kitchen is adept at roasting and grilling meats. I would drive out of my way for the crisp-roasted chicken and juicy Cajun blackened steak, dishes as much at home in the big city as in this peaceful, bucolic setting. The restaurant is, not surprisingly, recommended by the American Heart Assn., an organization that values low stress right along with low cholesterol.

Where and When

Location: Fin's Seafood Grill, 982 Westlake Blvd., Westlake Village.

Suggested Dishes: Lobster bisque, $3.50/$4.50; Maryland crab cakes, $8.95/$14.95; blackened sea bass, $14.95; roasted chicken, $10.95.

Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday; dinner 4 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 4 p.m. to midnight Friday through Saturday, 4:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday.

Price: Dinner for two, $30-$50. Full bar. Parking lot. Major credit cards accepted.

Call: (805) 494-6494.

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