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Restaurants : Beyond the Kingdom Is a Realm of Seafood

November 10, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for the Times Orange County Edition.

My 15-year-old niece blew into town last week, and, as night follows day, we made a pilgrimage to Disneyland. That gave me a chance to visit Shipyard Inn, a grown-up restaurant in the Disneyland Hotel.

My niece, as it happens, was underwhelmed by that idea and proved it by ingesting about 2,000 calories' worth of churros, butter-almond toffee and Coke before we got 100 yards past the park's main gate.

Most of the food available within the Magic Kingdom is fast food--burgers, burritos--or fancied-up regional fare, such as the Cajun dishes at Blue Bayou in New Orleans Square. However, there's always the option of saving your appetite for one of the six restaurants in the Disneyland Hotel, just outside the park.

Granville's Steak House is the hotel's premier dining establishment, a clubby, old-fashioned steak joint where the waiters roll up a cart full of raw meat to every table. It's the toughest ticket in the house.

Then there's Shipyard Inn, the hotel's much-ballyhooed seafood restaurant. It, too, generally fills up to the waterline . . . when Disneyland is busy. But as we know around here, late fall is a quiet season at the park. These days you should be able to book a table without too much trouble.

The Disney people are masters at creating atmosphere, so it's fair to call the nautical decor at Shipyard Inn understated, even austere, given that the company could make this place look like the battleship Missouri if Michael Eisner so deigned.

The restaurant overlooks the hotel's artificial marina and features an oyster bar, an all-glass facade and the usual seafood restaurant design elements: brass lanterns, wooden beams, menus embossed with sailing ships.

It's comfy, thanks to high-backed, sea-blue tapestry chairs. It is a bit jarring, though, that the tables are glass-topped, more as you'd expect at an unpretentious mom-and-pop restaurant than in a place that charges Shipyard Inn's sort of prices.

Anyway, you'll feel shipshape as soon as the waiter brings out the bread. Everyone is served a basket of ciabatta , a hot, chewy, flattish Italian loaf, perfect for smearing with whole cloves of baked elephant garlic and the delicious cilantro butter. It's great stuff.

By the way, wine lovers should ignore the house wine list and ask for one from below deck--the dining room directly downstairs called California Wine Cellar. You can order anything from that rather more sophisticated list, which is loaded with fine California and imported wines.

Shipyard Inn serves from an a la carte menu, and much of the best it has to offer can be found among the appetizers. From the oyster bar, the little necks, Pacific oysters and Alaskan king crab legs are all briny-fresh and sweet, unspoiled by the sort of nouvelle touches that often plague dishes here.

One creative appetizer that does work is lobster strudel Catalina, which I'd describe as closer to a lobster Napoleon. You don't get a strong taste of the lobster, mixed as it is with ricotta and shiitake mushrooms, but the flavors work well together, and the dish is quite delicious.

If you're a traditionalist, have the lobster bisque, a thick, almost jellied version intense with the tastes of both lobster and sherry. If you aren't, try the "shrimplings," fried shrimp won tons. This is true Pacific Rim fare and would work if the won ton skins weren't chimichanga-thick. Crab cakes Santa Fe are competent, with a pleasant red pepper coulis to dip them in, but the most interesting component of this dish is a tangy, interesting salad made from cactus, cilantro and a sprinkling of Parmesan.

Nearly all the entrees are seafood, which the kitchen rarely treats with the respect it deserves. For instance, a friend asked for his swordfish medallions to be undercooked. He got them on the well side of medium. My blackened catfish had an oily, slippery coating of blackening spices, as if the fish hadn't been seared at a high enough temperature.

The tiger prawns are impressively large, as big as money can buy, but they had been drowned in a sweet soy sauce, dusted with coconut and then broiled to a frazzle. The only dish everybody praised was the sauteed scallops, coated with panko (Japanese-style bread crumbs), and that was probably because it was the least flawed dish on the table.

The chefs are good sauce-makers, at least. The baked halibut comes with a fine spicy shrimp sauce, and the creamy herb vinaigrette served on both the swordfish and the scallops is delicious. Another intriguing idea is jalapeno hollandaise, one of the best sauces from this menu. This sauce would be great with a plain piece of broiled fish. It's wasted, however, where the restaurant chooses to use it, on that already overspiced blackened catfish.

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