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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Oysters on the Cheap : * The smell of saute pans overflowing with fresh seafood, tomato sauce and garlic is nearly impossible to resist.

September 24, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life!

STUDIO CITY — I knew I was going to like the Oyster House the moment I heard a rumor about it being actor John Goodman's favorite restaurant. The restaurant is known for its hungry-man portions.

It's a homey, "Cheers"-type neighborhood bar and restaurant, really a great place just to hang out, although the smell of saute pans overflowing with fresh seafoods, tomato sauce and garlic is nearly impossible to resist.

The Oyster House is dark and narrow. Tables, about 4 1/2 feet high, are surrounded with padded stools. Flea market-quality stained glass adorns the industrial drop ceiling.

If you've come to drink, station yourself at the long bar alongside guys in Levi's Dockers and women dressed in sports clothes. But if you've come to eat, grab a table if one is free, since you will probably have to share it later when the inevitable happens and the restaurant fills up. Almost no one here minds this policy. The Oyster House is a place where one can feast for less than $10, and that makes a person unusually tolerant.

Light eaters may not get past the rolls. The restaurant's no-nonsense waitresses serve everybody a basket of super-dense, crusty, baseball-size hot rolls, rolls made to be slathered with the margarine, Parmesan cheese and minced garlic spread that accompanies them. In combination with drafts of ice-cold beer (from taps with baseball-shaped handles), these rolls make a great snack.

The lunch menu is abundant and cheap, lots of seafoods and pastas, and nothing for more than $6.95. Red clam chowder, hearty and well-spiced, brimming with celery, chunks of tomato and chopped clams, is superior to the pasty, thick white version. The fried-oyster sandwich is more like a huge salad--lettuce, tomato and sliced onion all doused with a delicious vinaigrette. At least seven or eight thickly breaded Eastern oysters are all mixed up in the salad. Should you reach bottom, there is a big piece of toasted French bread underneath it all.

A pile of black mussels on a bed of al dente linguine, a house special, comes topped with piquant red garlic sauce or a penetrating white sauce, like a peasant version of moules mariniere. Either way, the mussels are terrific.

Filling as they are, I'd give lower marks to the stuffed prawns; the big shrimp are enveloped by a gummy but tasty crab and bread crumb stuffing.

It's a whole lot noisier in here in the evenings. For one thing, people tend to linger at the bar. For another, it takes a lot longer to get the food. There is compensation, though. The waitresses hand out slices--make that squares--of hot pizza with such toppings as pesto and spicy cheese.

One fun-to-eat appetizer is eggplant "Oyster House," a sheet of thinly sliced sauteed eggplant with a Milanese-type breading, a layer of Gorgonzola cheese and a blanket of stewed tomatoes posing as sauce. The chopped salad again uses Gorgonzola, but this time way too much: Romaine lettuce is mixed with scandalous amounts of the cheese, large pieces of bacon and more tomatoes. Even John Goodman probably wouldn't finish this one.

Main courses are things like blackened bass and swordfish, and lots of stuffed items. Both scampi and bay scallops come in generous portions, huge plates of sea creatures cooked on top of the stove in white wine, butter and garlic. Lots of people order something called "babalucci"-- escargot and tomatoes in garlic sauce served over angel hair pasta. I went for stuffed sand dabs, a contradiction if there ever was one. Sand dabs are among the most delicate Pacific fish--stuff them with a heavy crab meat mixture and they become anchor material.

For dessert, there are a few things from the Cheesecake Factory. I got lucky with the German chocolate cake. It was moist and dense, with a light coconut-pecan frosting. But both the lemon twist and plain cheesecakes had lost any semblance of freshness, tasting as if they had been in the fridge a bit too long. I know why this is: No one eats dessert here; they're too full from dinner.

WHERE AND WHEN

What: The Oyster House, 12446 Moorpark St., Studio City.

Suggested Dishes: Fried oyster sandwich, $5.95; mussels and linguine, $6.95 lunch, $9.95 dinner; eggplant "Oyster House," $6.95; shrimp scampi, $12.95.

Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, dinner 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily.

Price: Dinner for two, $20 to $35. Full bar. Parking in side lot. MasterCard and Visa.

Call: (818) 761-8686.

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