NEWPORT BEACH — The pleasure boats and quaint little homes that frame Newport Harbor don't exactly bring to mind the Old South. But this is Southern California, where anything is possible, even a full-sized Mississippi paddle-wheel steamboat serving as a restaurant.
Almost everyone I know has eaten at this epitome of the theme restaurant at one time or another, either when it was the Reuben E. Lee or later when it turned into Charley Brown's. Many celebrated their senior proms here. Others tagged along with an out-of-town relative after a day at Disneyland.
In its latest incarnation as Riverboat Restaurant, Texas barbecue maven Clayton Shurley is making a not-altogether-successful attempt to turn it into a serious restaurant. Riverboat offers a vaguely Southern menu that is heavy on Louisiana, light on Texas and equal parts nostalgia and hokum. Not surprisingly, the smoked meats are mostly great. A few other items, such as gumbo and grilled quail, need some rethinking.
It's easy to get caught up in the spirit of the proceedings. You enter by crossing a gangplank into a belle epoque interior--red velvet curtains, plush velvet booths and the sort of wrought-iron chandeliers you see in New Orleans tourist traps. On the bar, ornate bottles of premium bourbons are on display. You can get a Cajun martini, made with Absolut Peppar vodka and a jalapen~o-stuffed olive.
Atmosphere alone does not a restaurant make, though. This place often seems just a step away from being an unqualified success, but it turns out to be a long step.
I first tasted Shurley's cooking at a restaurant show, where he was handing out chunks of the most tender, smokiest Texas-style barbecued brisket I have ever tasted. This soft, cumin-spiked beef left me longing for more, so, naturally, the first thing I ordered here was a brisket sandwich, from the restaurant's lunch menu.
I was in for a shock. The brisket came in long, tough strips that tasted as if they had been pre-carved and then warmed on a grill. The meat did have a sensationally smoky flavor and a nice smear of Shurley's delicious, complex barbecue sauce, and it was served with a pile of crisp onion rings, but it was a sad imitation of real Texas barbecue.
The kitchen made up for it another day at dinner. Big Mo's baby back ribs proved to be the best ribs in Orange County, maybe in California's entire Southland. The crumbly meat could have been a touch more tender, but I can't imagine more delicious ribs. They were deep reddish brown, black near the bone, intense with the flavor of hickory smoke and Shurley's barbecue sauce. They were a big portion, too, eight to an order.
Another triumph from the lunch menu was the fried chicken breast, served with real cream gravy, andouille mashed potatoes and a hot, flaky biscuit. I liked the idea that the fluffy mashed potatoes were mixed with tiny bits of spicy sausage. But beware--when I ordered those potatoes again at dinner, they were completely dried out and had an unappetizing "skin" on the surface.
The kitchen here, it seems, is just plain erratic. Junior's special gumbo has a terrific flavor and an appetizing burnished hue, but the soup is just too thick, almost pasty. Cousin Earl's chowder is also excessively thickened, and the chefs commit the cardinal sin of using canned clams.
St. Charles artichoke hearts and mushrooms, served in a casserole dish, is impossibly rich. The vegetables, sauteed with shallots, garlic butter, white wine and Parmesan cheese, have good flavor and crispness, but soon the sauce begins to separate, leaving an oily slick on the inside of the dish. The steamboat popcorn shrimp are better. They're lightly breaded bay shrimps, served with Mrs. Lilly's special sweet sauce, a sticky fruit chutney with a dash of horseradish.
The main dishes are generally good. If you order Natchez Creole shrimp, you get large shrimp sauteed with onions, bell peppers, tomatoes and garlic, served with a mound of fluffy dirty rice. This is the sort of classic Creole dish you might actually get in New Orleans, and the shrimp are quite fresh.
Dr. VooDoo jambalaya is another interesting choice, although it's unlike any jambalaya I've ever had. The oysters, shrimp and fish are cooked in a Creole sauce and then set on top of rice mixed with bits of andouille sausage.
I didn't care for the grilled Southern quail, though the bird was nicely marinated and adroitly blackened on a grill. The problem is that pieces of the quail are placed on a ice-cold bed of greens for serving, a jarring effect. And the red beans and rice, served at lunch, also have room for improvement. The beans remain whole and taste boiled, rather than stewed, as they'd be in the South, and the strong spices in the dirty rice mask their flavor.
The Old South specializes in distinctive, wonderfully rich desserts, but Riverboat doesn't have much truck with them. It offers a commercial carrot cake from the Balboa Baking Co. and a tired strawberry shortcake consisting of spongy layers of angel food cake, a thick fruit glaze and stabilized whipped cream.
One dessert is made here, though, and it's a good one: Grand Finale. This is a blowout of brownies, strawberries, macadamia nuts, pecans, fudge sauce and whipped cream, all smooshed together in a brandy snifter. It isn't bananas Foster, but, hey, this isn't really the Mississippi, either.
Riverboat Restaurant is expensive. Appetizers are $9 to $12. Salads are $8 to $11. Entrees are $14 to $21.
Riverboat Restaurant, 151 E. Coast Highway, Newport Beach. (949) 673-3425. Hours: lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; dinner 5-10 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday; brunch 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. All major cards.