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RESTAURANTS : A Mixed Menu, Mixed Signals and Mixed Results

June 22, 1995|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for the Times Orange County Edition.

A Landry's Seafood House recently opened where the Sand Dancer Grill spent its short life, and it hopes to compete with such neighboring Newport restaurants as the Chart House and Billy's at the Beach. I dare say there's room at the top.

Stop by Landry's front podium, and a hostess will offer you a clever newsletter/takeout menu from which you can learn everything you'd ever want to know about this seafood restaurant chain: its humble start in Katy, Tex., its price for a dozen deep-fried Gulf shrimp ($13.95), even a slew of appraisals ("One of nine hot concepts of the '90s"--Business Week). There's an 800 number expressly for customer comment.

This is an eager, growing chain, so expect vigorous corporate enthusiasm among the work force. At dinner one evening, I overheard a manager boast, a la Khrushchev, that the company would "bury Red Lobster."

True, Landry's has a more varied menu than Red Lobster, with po' boy sandwiches and, when in season, crawfish etouffee. Its concept appears to be a clever, market-tested mix of Southern, Cajun and Southwestern. Now all it has to do is convince us.

That won't be easy. Big restaurant chains are always using Orange County as a test market--Sizzler, for instance, launched the Buffalo Ranch Steakhouse concept here last year. The Newport Beach crowd, though, has long proven a fickle test subject.

So far, the people I've seen dining here have been tourists, celebrities (former Rams running back Eric Dickerson) and even a lady wearing a red, white and blue dress. What I haven't seen is a crowd decked out in yachting gear, or the large flocks of Beamers, 450 SLs and Jaguars that grace the parking lots of nearby Villa Nova and Yankee Tavern.

Maybe the restaurant's concept is too casual. Though Landry's has a big-time view of Newport Harbor, you sit on sea-blue vinyl chairs at tables covered in easy-to-wipe oilcloth. The corporate taste for uniformity is probably why this Landry's is no fancier than its sister restaurants in Sugarland or Corpus Christi.

But personally, if I'm going to pay $29.95 for live Maine lobster, I'd like a comfortable chair and some table linen, and maybe the boating crowd agrees.

If you're going to try the Landry's experience, I'd start with the peeled, chilled shrimp (nine of them) served with tangy cocktail sauce. The Caesar salad, with a creamy, anchovy-free dressing and too much shaved Parmesan, is perfunctory. I also find the gumbo perfunctory, a thin, dark roux- based broth with just a mound of rice and a little seafood in it.

The catchily named Oyster Bar Trash is a dish of blackened lump crab meat and small shrimp. I like the idea and the way the blackening spices work, but the dish is unreasonably salty.

The seafood stuffed mushrooms (six to an order) are topped with a tasty mixture of crab, shrimp, bread crumbs and spices, all in a cream sauce. But bear in mind when you're ordering your entree that this same stuffing is used in a great many dishes here, such as stuffed crab and stuffed shrimp.

Of course, there's always the hot appetizer combo: popcorn shrimp, crab fingers, fried fish, stuffed jalapenos, deep-fried mushrooms, zucchini and the aptly named "onion strings." A few components are tasty, notably the crunchy popcorn shrimp and the tempura-style mushrooms, but the tastes cloy fast, and soon you can't distinguish one food from another.

Broiled and grilled seafoods are consistently good here. They are simple dishes, but if you require complication, you can add Pontchartrain topping for an extra $3.95. Named for Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans, it's a mixture of blackened shrimp, corn, pico de gallo and sauteed crab.

The flavorful Gulf red snapper is the best fresh fish. I'd order it with just lemon butter. The swordfish is moist and tender, and the catfish filet, lightly dusted with seasoned flour and broiled, tastes much like what you get down on the bayous.

Good news for carnivores: When you order beef here, it's certified Angus. I've had a peppered filet mignon, crusted with black pepper and beautifully red on the inside. Landry's may be a seafood restaurant, but I'd rate this steak the equal of any around.

Things to avoid here include the crab platter (six crab preparations, all tasting the same), the overcooked pastas and the chile-rubbed salmon (a nice piece of fish mugged by a passion fruit peppercorn vinaigrette).

Most main courses come with nondescript rice pilaf and an uninteresting salad.

Desserts, such as cheesecake and bananas Foster, are made on the premises. The latter should be a symbol of a glorious bygone era, a flaming concoction of rum, bananas, brown sugar, vanilla ice cream and hot crepes. Landry's model, though, is cold, soggy and bland, drenched in a sticky, lukewarm sauce.

This may work for a corporation, but not for an amateur Cajun like me.

Landry's Seafood House is moderate to expensive. Appetizers are $4.95 to $15.95. Gumbos and salads are $3.50 to $10.95. Broiled, grilled and fried seafoods are $9.95 to $18.95. Platters are $16.95 to $19.95.

* LANDRY'S SEAFOOD HOUSE

* 2607 W. Coast Highway, Newport Beach.

* (714) 650-1818.

* Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

* All major cards.

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