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Restaurants : Oysters: Best When It Keeps It Simple

June 15, 1995|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for the Times Orange County Edition.

Think of it as Pacific Rim meets Europe . . . head on. When the flavors don't crash, Oysters in Corona del Mar can be a wild, enjoyable ride.

(It's also a nice place to eat. Check out the charming, glass-enclosed back patio, which faces a bucolic garden.)

Open six years, the restaurant has been busily reinventing itself--including adding Asian accents--for about a year, and has further refined its menu in recent months under new executive chef Matthew Fitzgibbons. He hasn't shucked off serving oysters, but the culinary focus is now Fusion Cuisine.

Before you plunge in, take note of the outstanding wine list. The regulars--doused in designer perfumes and Porsche exhaust--may be drinking Chardonnay, but there are many other choices on this outstanding wine list, and at very reasonable prices. Peter Michael's crisp Sauvignon Blanc "L'Apres-Midi" is just $25. There's a superb Sancerre from Paul Cotat at $33. Sean Thackery's heady Rhone-style red, Pleiades, is $22. The hard-to-find Williams Selyem '93 Russian River Valley Pinot is a steal at $37.

Matching food and wine, though, can be a challenge, even with the help of the restaurant's well-trained staff, because the menu is all over the map--you couldn't navigate it with a sextant. A few of the more popular dishes include fish and chips, Thai barbecued lamb chops and lettuce cups filled with stir-fry ginger chicken. Many items are finished on an oak wood grill.

In general, things work well at Oysters when not confounded by too many ingredients. The smoked chicken and rock shrimp won tons, for instance, are reasonable in themselves, but they are needlessly complicated by a sauce of shiitake mushrooms mixed with a sort of spicy Asian salsa.

The fish of the moment, escolar (a Florida relative of the sea bass), grilled over oak and brushed with aromatic achiote , certainly doesn't need the pesto this kitchen spreads on it. And oak-grilled Canadian halibut comes with cilantro pesto, orange ancho chile sauce, pico de gallo, flour tortillas and Thai jasmine rice, which is way too eclectic for me.

Personally, I'd keep it simple. Consider Oysters' namesakes. The restaurant offers a glistening smorgasbord of oysters: Bluepoints, tiny Kumamotos, Malpeques from Prince Edward Island and Imperial Eagles from Puget Sound, with their iodine tang. You get two of each variety on the half shell; with a squeeze of lemon and a dab of the chef's shallot vinaigrette, this is what I call living. A slice or two of the crusty house sourdough doesn't hurt either.

Fitzgibbons likes Asian flavors such as sesame and hoisin, and he uses them liberally, for instance, in seared spicy prawns with rice dots. (Rice dots are bite-sized cakes of grilled rice, here used as tiny beds for the prawns.) His fresh salmon spring rolls combine Japanese and Vietnamese elements. The spring rolls are stuffed with cooked salmon and lightly fried, to be eaten with a rice wine and cucumber dipping sauce.

Oak-grilled artichoke is a triumph of both nature and man. The grilling gives artichokes a smoky sweetness, and Oysters serves this appetizer with an appealing Worcestershire sauce mayonnaise.

A section of the menu titled "small plates" is especially well put together. This is where you find the fish and chips and an oak-grilled cheeseburger, and also an appealing Japanese-style ginger chicken rice bowl. The Thai barbecued lamb chops are terrific.

Fresh seafood hot pot sounds like an enticing entree--the menu describes it as clams, scallops, seafood and shrimp in a lemon grass broth with angel hair pasta, "a Vietnamese version of bouillabaisse." It's a disappointment, though. The broth doesn't have much soul--you can't taste the lemon grass--and the pasta is mush.

You'd do better to pick something cooked on the oak grill, even though hardwood grilling can be hard on fish, and occasionally an order does end up overdone here. My "flash-grilled" swordfish, for instance, was totally dried out. On the other hand, it was so deliciously smoky I decided not to bother the waiter about it.

The oak-grilled meats, such as the top sirloin and the thick pork chop, are always good. Fitzgibbons calls one specialty his New York steak stack: 12 ounces of Angus beef layered with garlic mashed potatoes, grilled Vidalia onions, Portobello mushrooms and sauteed spinach. It's not egregiously over-complicated, but what does a guy have to do around here to get a simple plate of meat and potatoes?

Oysters is expensive. Appetizers are $6.25 to $12.95. Small plates are $6.95 to $9.95. Soups and salads are $2.50 to $12.95. Main dishes are $12.95 to $19.95.

* OYSTERS

* 2515 E. Coast Highway, Corona Del Mar.

* (714) 675-7411.

* Dinner only. 5-10 p.m. Monday-Wednesday; 5-10:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 4-10 p.m. Sunday.

* Visa, Mastercard and American Express.

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