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Restaurant Review : More Is Less at Mum's in Long Beach

May 13, 1994|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mum's, which has graced the now-trendy stretch of Pine Avenue in Long Beach for almost six years, is one hot spot on a Saturday night. There are large tables of friends out for a night on the town, women in backless black dresses, men in silk. A father and his 16-year-old daughter split a huge wedge of chocolate cake; a university professor and his wife quietly share a bottle of good wine. Behind us, a table of middle-aged couples are having a group laughing fit.

A party spirit prevails, even in the women's restroom, where there's a lively debate in progress on the virtues of face-powdering after the age of 40: "It gets in the folds," one woman laughs. "Stick to the nose, there are no wrinkles there," says another. Back in the restaurant, a jazz combo is just starting up for the night.

The walls are pale green, the carpet celadon, the booths aubergine and elevated over the restaurant floor, with a view of the busy open kitchen, a sea of tables, Gargantuan tropical flower arrangements. Some are equipped with a telephone--local calls only.

Early one evening, when things are quiet and our waitress is far across the room and we can't get her to look at us, I can't resist the temptation. I call the restaurant. A cheery young man answers.

"Hi," I say. "Sorry to disturb you, but I'm in the second booth here in the restaurant and we need either our waitress or some horseradish for our prime rib."

He laughs. "Sure," he says. "No problem. Horseradish coming your way."

And shortly, it arrived.

*

Mum's is a bastion of California cuisine with the requisite designer pizzas, pastas and highly built entrees bearing various influences from Asian, Italian, Southwestern, French and American cuisines. The food tends to be overwrought. The special soup, described as tomato-artichoke chicken soup, is in fact a cream-based puree that's delicious, if far richer than we expect, and only lukewarm. A spinach salad has far too much coarse mustard dressing; the house salad has a heavy and rich raspberry vinaigrette.

The kitchen's philosophy apparently is More Is More. Everything that can be amped up, enriched, dressed or sauced is. Sometimes this works: Crab cakes are plump and good-tasting with a smooth red-pepper mayonnaise and a fresh corn salad. But nicely seasoned, inescapably greasy beef-filled spring rolls sit in a large sticky red lake of plum sauce next to a heavily dressed Asian-style cabbage salad and a tomato cut like a little basket.

A pizza with Louisiana hot links, peppers, cheese and red onions seems wonderfully plain and straightforward next to most of the food we encounter. The Southwest pizza--with black bean sauce, guacamole, sour cream, chiles, cheese and chicken--tastes like an odd, slightly dry burrito.

Given the kitchen's penchant for gilding lilies, I'm not surprised to find the pesto on my capellini with grilled shrimp enriched with cream, but I do wish the kitchen had spared the cream and used fresher, tastier shrimp. Thai chicken linguine with chicken and a thick ginger sauce is no-nonsense spicy and, again, quite rich. The ravioli stuffing of veal and chestnuts tastes very much like grainy hamburger, even when paired with a rich porcini cream sauce.

The night's fresh fish special, a piece of yellowtail, was small, uninspired and unfortunately overwhelmed by a Gorgonzola cream sauce that had seeped over from the accompanying penne. Salmon in a potato crust looks like a toasty turnover in a bright green lake of pesto cream sauce: It tastes great, but the colors are disconcerting.

Prime rib is actually a grilled-to-order steak cut from the prime rib; it's a huge, fairly wonderful piece of meat served with buttery basil mashed potatoes. Jumbo scallops, as if not enough on their own, are wrapped in sole and served with tasty lobster ravioli under a mound of deep-fried shreds of parsnips, carrots and spinach.

From appetizers to desserts, I found myself wanting less--less fuss, less frills, less construction. I'd trade the excess for lovelier, top-quality ingredients. Forget the creme anglais and strawberry coulis --give me a fresher, moister slice of carrot cake.

* Mum's, 144 Pine Ave., Long Beach, (310) 437-7700. Lunch and dinner seven days. Full bar. Major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $36-$74.

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