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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Red Lobster Puts a Pinch on Quality : Though some dishes are good and fresh, other offerings are poor and flavorless. Simple broiled halibut was a hit.


The Red Lobster chain of restaurants dots the United States with astonishing success. Whether it's the Red Lobster on Route 17 in northern New Jersey or the Red Lobster off the Ventura Freeway in Oxnard, the dining room is always running full-tilt with happy customers facing tan mounds of fried shrimp or combo plates sprouting large pink and white branches known as crab legs.

The decor is nautically contrived, with giant wood-carved fish hanging from one wall and ships' nameplates mounted on all others. It is hard to know what Bluenose, the Maine-to-Nova Scotia ferry, would mean to folks here, but then there is much about Red Lobster that eludes.

While waiting for a table, for example, note the lobby rack bearing pamphlets on healthful, low-fat, low-cholesterol eating--all designed, it would seem, to militate against deep frying and fatty, cheesy sauces. Once seated, note the fat-happy menu boasting broccoli cheese soup, shrimp in cream and cheese sauce, mushrooms stuffed with deviled crab beneath a mantle of melted cheese, and all manner of breaded and deep-fried and sauced fish.

In fairness, the menu also contains lean, broiled and boiled choices. But the house gesture toward health consciousness does seem to carry with it an ambiguously blubbery wink of the eye.

Confusion persists when an ebullient server, to whom an order of blackened salmon has been placed, offers that she's never liked fish at all and instead prefers chicken. Well, thank you. (More on the salmon later.)

The food here is generally fair and undistinguished, dipping as low as poor and flavorless and as high as good and fresh. Variable quality alone never scares me off--it's hard to turn out large amounts of good food anywhere, chain or not, and I am always grateful for the properly grilled piece of fresh fish.

But we are not talking about a seaside shack here. Red Lobster can be pricey if you don't watch it, with dinner for two with a beer for each of you easily hitting the $50 mark. That, combined with mixed results from the kitchen, makes the place awfully costly.

Among appetizers, the deep-fried calamari ($3.99) are tough and, but for herbs in the breading, flavorless. Bayou-style seafood gumbo ($2.65 a cup) is a thickened, roux-brown brew, which requires endless fishing to find the 1 1/2 microshrimp that qualify as seafood content. New England clam chowder ($2.25) is nominally better--it bears plenty of clam bits and flavor--but suffers from too much thickening.

Instead, go for the shrimp cocktail ($5.35), in which the crustaceans are plump, flavorsome, and just-slightly undercooked, and the better for it. Lobster-stuffed mushrooms ($5.99) are fresh and satisfying, if a bit shy in lobster flavor and content. Parmesan zucchini ($2.99) is a decadent hit, arriving fresh and crisp, encased in buttery batter and plentiful enough for a table of two or three.

Shrimp quesadillas ($4.99) are a lush sight but disappoint: Even a lusty Cheddar filling leavened by green onions can't overcome a scattering of tiny, flavorless shrimp. Salads, included with dinner, cut both ways. Caesar is goopy in the dressing, while cole slaw is crisp and refreshing.

The single best entree sampled was the simplest: broiled halibut ($14.99). The fish was fresh, sweet, succulent, generously cut, expertly handled under the flame. Its accompaniment of sauteed fresh yellow and green squash, spiked with onion and mixed herbs, was just right. But the blackened salmon ($13.99) was a confusion: The fish lacked flavor from within, and its alleged incendiary Cajun coating, while visibly present, lacked any fire whatsoever. The sensation was one of eating virtual blackened salmon.

Swordfish grilled with lemon pepper ($16.59) straddled the fair-to-good mark: fresh and flavorful in the fillet but wan and lost in a treatment that sounded bold and promising.

Lacking the heart to order large fried shrimp--a dish so popular it is offered in three sizes, with prices ranging from $10.35 to $14.35--I did engage a Neptune's Feast ($12.65). This combo plate included the large butterflied and fried shrimp (OK, a bit chewy, too much breading), broiled fish fillet (delightfully tender), bay scallops (no flavor), and deviled crab cake (busy, blurry, mushy, indistinct).

The place takes its name from the lobster, so a live 1 1/4-pounder from Maine was ordered at lunch for the hefty sum of $26.95 (recently market priced at $23.35). Plucked from the tank in the lobby and steamed to retain as much flavor as possible, this crawler showed apparent mileage: The meat was lacking in the inherent sweetness of Maine lobsters, and its texture was too tough for the money. This, indeed, made for the saddest confusion of all.

When in doubt, always reach for the one thing that does come out right here--a decadence called hot cheese garlic bread. It accompanies every entree. It is salty, lush, a once-in-a-while indulgence that lights up the good and cushions the bad.

Desserts are OK, best among them a key lime pie ($2.65) that is tart and assertive in the filling and crumbly in a thick crust.

Red Lobster's wine selection is modest but very fairly priced, with some varieties offered by the glass.


* WHAT: Red Lobster.

* WHERE: 1740 Ventura Blvd. at the Ventura Freeway northbound, Oxnard.

* WHEN: Lunch from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, seven days; dinner from 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, till 11 on Friday and Saturday.

* FYI: Major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, from $25 to $70.

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