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RESTAURANTS

Great Scott's--Well, Much Improved, Anyway

July 07, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for the Times Orange County.

Scott's Seafood Grill and Bar has beefed up its already extensive menu with a selection of aged prime steaks. Make mine rare, and hold the tartar sauce.

In case you don't know the history of this chain, the first Scott's opened about 20 years ago in San Francisco, where the company has two restaurants, the Lombard Street original and a later edition in the Embarcadero. I ate often and enthusiastically in the Lombard Street place during my years in the Bay Area. They served a mean seafood saute, and you could always count on the chance to mingle with the crowd of well-dressed men and women, Chardonnay glasses in hand, who lined up inside the door.

Five years ago Scott's opened a showcase restaurant in the South Coast Plaza area. It was, and is, one of Orange County's most beautiful dining spots, but the quality of food preparation was not impressive in those early days, so I didn't return until recently. Maybe because of the cold-water seafood, Scott's San Francisco operation still impresses me more, but the Scott's in Costa Mesa is much improved, and there's a lot to like about it now.

I've always been stunned by the sheer beauty of this sprawling, cream-colored place. The fully open, all-copper kitchen looks pulled straight from the pages of Architectural Digest. The main dining room is flooded with ambient light from overhead skylights, and rows of bulbous, translucent lamps, five feet across, hang from the ceiling.

Fans twirl languidly overhead, too. They help give the place the air of a dreamy Bahamian resort, or something out of a novel by Graham Greene. And on the subject of languidness, the leather designer chairs are among the most comfortable I've ever encountered.

The restaurant is frequently overrun by people having dinner before hitting the nearby Performing Arts Center (the best time for dinner is during performance hours: after 8, before 10). Even so, the highly professional staff appears to handle everybody without any major glitches. Busboys keep lots of crusty sourdough on your table and refill drinks constantly. Waiters are always on the run, and they never seem to miss a trick.

Furthermore, a man named Michael Silver has embellished the new menu with one of the county's best wine lists, an all-California selection featuring steak-friendly red wines such as the velvety smooth '87 Kalin Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($36) on up to the lofty Opus One, which you can order by the glass ($9 for three ounces, cowboy).

Alas, the story doesn't end there. The restaurant still suffers from high prices and unfulfilled promises. Perhaps if Scott's were more modest it would be reasonable to settle for what you get, but when a restaurant is excellent in so many ways--ambience, service, wine selection--it's hard to understand why the food doesn't knock you out.

Some dishes come close, though. Gustav Anders, move over-- poivre lox, sliced razor-thin and served with tiny buttered bagels and herbed cream cheese, is the equal of any salmon I've ever tasted. The tomatoey Dungeness crab bisque is thick and complex; you feel the texture of the crab before you taste it, then it stays with you.

Hearts of romaine is another terrific starter, with a fine balsamic vinaigrette that runs in rivulets onto the plate. But you'll come down to earth if you order the grimly overcooked artichoke, stodgily breaded popcorn shrimp or starchy, clam-stingy chowder.

The entrees run the same gamut of quality. The menu tells you that seafood is cooked moist in the center, but isn't always the case. Three of the fish I've tried--charbroiled Mexican dorado, grilled petrale sole and potato-crusted Mexican sea bass--arrived badly overcooked. The dorado was positively frazzled.

The best non-steak entree might be seafood jambalaya, even if no self-respecting Cajun would go near it. It's a big bowl of spicy rice, sausage, chicken, prawns and lots of fresh fish. That the fish turns out to be salmon shouldn't matter unless you are one of those purists, or Cajuns.

Now let's talk about meat. Only 1% of American beef is designated prime, and Scott's has it--cornfed prime beef aged 28 days. We tried three cuts and found them tender and juicy but not quite as flavorful as the meat at a Peter Luger's, Ruth's Chris or other top-notch steakhouse.

The best of them might be the 16-ounce rib eye. This meat was the most flavorful, and you could cut it with a fork, though there was rather a surfeit of gristle. The 14-ounce New York strip, more expensive and less gristly than the rib eye, did not have nearly as much flavor. I prefer the filet mignon, also 14 ounces, to the New York. It may not be as flavorful as the rib eye, but it has tenderness to spare. Really serious steak eaters can go for the 36-ounce Porterhouse, $58 for two people.

The side dishes intended for the meats are all steakhouse classics--thick fries, sauteed spinach with roasted garlic, fried onion rings. Desserts are of the steakhouse type, too, rich pies and tortes that will push that cholesterol count into the stratosphere. Try peanut butter pie, sitting in a pool of melted chocolate, or the whipped cream-topped banana Savannah, layers of caramel and fresh banana.

Then repair to the bar for a much needed after-dinner coffee and muse about the great things that might have been.

Scott's Seafood Bar and Grill is expensive. Appetizers, soups and salads are $3.25 to $11.50. Entrees are $12.95 to $36.95. Steaks are $14.50 to $58. Desserts are $4 to $5.95.

* SCOTT'S SEAFOOD GRILL AND BAR

* 3300 Bristol St., Costa Mesa.

* (714) 979-2400.

* Open daily, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

* All major cards accepted.

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