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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Mobay: Best Remembered for Its Patio

July 22, 1994|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Malibu's cheerful and popular Cafe Mobay has produced its first offspring, the neon-bright Mobay on Abbott Kinney Boulevard in Venice. The name refers to Montego Bay, Jamaica, and its colors, indoors and out, are as loud and squawky as a flock of parrots.

Faux trees hold up the dining room ceiling, original art blasts from the walls. Even the chair upholstery has not eluded the brush of a relentlessly cheerful colorist. Outside, where everyone wants to sit, the heated patio is full of potted banana palms, hibiscus, thumpy reggae music.

I wanted to like this restaurant. The menu is interesting, varied, creative: Chef and co-owner Derek Harrison is well-respected for his nouvelle approach to Caribbean favorites in Malibu. There are never, in my opinion, enough good patios for hot summer nights, and Mobay's terrace, for all its theme-park exuberance, is lovely after dark. And who doesn't like Caribbean food--its curries and dense spiciness, plantains, rice and beans?

*

In the course of my visits--Mobay has been open a scant two months--the service has improved steadily. Still, the staff has certain regrettable quirks, like telling us repeatedly our table will be ready in "two or three minutes" when, in truth, it will be another 15 minutes or half an hour. It also seems that two women dining together are invisible (a quirk by no means limited to this restaurant). Or maybe there's another reason why the one time I visit Mobay with a female friend, we wait 40 minutes for our first appetizer, are largely neglected by our server and never receive a basket of bread.

All of this may not have been so irritating had I been more entranced by Harrison's disheveled, heavy-handed, and ultimately unmemorable approach to nouvelle Caribbean Cuisine.

Except for "stamp and go fritters," salty and charming little cod cakes, appetizers are disappointing. Some of this is due to the kitchen's sloppiness. One night we order both a vegetable-filled "pattie" (Jamaican-style empanada ) and jerk chicken ravioli. The pattie we're served has a turmeric, yellow crust and a bland, ground-chicken filling and comes in a smooth, spicy, tomato-cinnamon sauce . . . as does the ravioli, which according to the menu comes with mango salsa. Thus, we end up with two dull chicken appetizers in the same sauce. . . .

On another evening, crab cakes are undercooked and gummy, although fully cooked crispy edges hint at how good they might be. A $9-appetizer of charred jumbo scallops has only three thin, by no means charred, scallops.

The Mobay salad, with fried balls of goat cheese, is lovely and refreshing, but a Caesar salad is made with wilted lettuce and the grilled vegetable salad is a big squishy heap of sweet barbecued vegetables and plantains.

*

Entrees are arranged in stacks and swirls: A thick, curried, not particularly interesting mound of goat stew is, if the kitchen remembers, topped with a spicy sweet potato fritter; black-pepper sea bass floats on a mound of potatoes in a sea of spicy sauce; jerk chicken, emitting strong fumes of Worcestershire sauce, mooshes into saucy red beans and plantains.

While sometimes these assemblages are effective--the bass is lovely, for example, as is a flavorful, sliced turkey breast arranged in petals over mashed potatoes and a spritely fresh corn salsa--more often than not, entrees are murky, muddled and impossible to remember: Was that chicken in a sauce, or beans or both?

The only certainty is that big, flappy slices of not particularly ripe or sweet plantain are omnipresent; I even fish them out of my oxtail tureen where they actually outnumber oxtail segments and butter beans.

Desserts, cool and distinct, come as a welcome relief from all the preceding muddiness. Airy, tart Key lime mousse is perfect with crunchy shaved fresh coconut. A chewy, compressed bread pudding is the bland, blank page for three distinctive sauces (lime, caramel and vanilla). The same sauces complement smooth, powerful rum raisin ice cream.

* Mobay, 1031 Abbott Kinney Blvd., Venice (310) 452-7472. Open daily for lunch and dinner, Saturday and Sunday for brunch. Beer and wine only. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $32 to $66.

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