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The Lobster's Back--and Drawing a Crowd

First Impressions

August 12, 1999|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

Remember that scruffy little seafood place that sat vacant at the end of Santa Monica pier at Ocean Avenue for so many years? Well, it's back. But the Lobster is a shack no more. You can just barely see the bones of the original 30-seat structure in what is now the foyer or waiting area. Up a few steps is the new Lobster, cantilevered out to create a 110-seat restaurant with 34 more seats on the patio and a 180-degree view of the pier and the ocean beyond.

I don't know what it is about eating lobster that brings out the raucous in people. Maybe it's those undignified plastic bibs, or the work of ferreting out every bit of meat from those ferocious-looking claws. On a recent weekday night, every time the blond at the table across the way shrieked or her escort guffawed, it felt like someone was sticking swords in my ears. I had to keep reassuring my guests that we were really having fun.

Six of us were squeezed into a booth built for four normal-sized adults, but after the food began to arrive, we began to view the seating arrangement as more cozy than uncomfortable. After all, it made it easier to steal a bite, and then another, of the plump Maryland crab cakes, or to reach across the table for more of that puckery sauce that comes with the crispy lemon calamari. Then again, it made it easier for everyone to pluck one of those golden fried oysters off my romaine and endive salad.

What's disappointing here is the live steamed lobster. At $24 per pound, you think you'd get more real Maine lobster flavor out of this two-pounder. It's a little tough to boot. I like the presentation, though, with just drawn butter and rather al dente little roasting potatoes. The grilled lobster slathered in herbs and garlic is actually more in favor at our table. And everyone wants a little more of the spicy Louisiana prawns with their kick of heat and delicious dirty rice. A beautiful piece of grilled wild salmon is flanked by good green beans and mashed potatoes. It's too bad it's overcooked. Patience, but the kitchen is new and the place is packed.

What's left to try on the menu? Namely the chilled half lobster, the lobster chowder and some more of the sides. But next time I'll ask for a table on the patio, which is quieter, or else reserve after 9:45 p.m. or so when the place just might begin to empty out.

BE THERE

The Lobster, 1602 Ocean Ave. (at Santa Monica Pier), Santa Monica; (310) 458-9294. Open daily from 11:30 a.m. (11 a.m. on Sunday) to 10:30 p.m. (until 11:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday). Appetizers $7 to $15; main courses $13 to $27; lobster $23 to $25 per pound; prices slightly less at lunch. Valet parking.

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