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At Spaghettini, Where Was All That Jazz?

Popular Seal Beach eatery promises more culinary creativity than it delivers.

October 26, 2000|DANA GLAD FARRAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I went to Spaghettini Italian Grill and Jazz Club hoping for the culinary equivalent of John Coltrane's improvisational surprises and came away feeling it was more like the "Blue Danube" waltz--lovely, a little pompous and something I've heard too many times before.

The Seal Beach restaurant certainly has the look of success, with its brick and awning exterior, high ceilings, dramatic low lighting and open kitchen. People line up out front with pagers that double as coasters and even eat in the bar out of sheer desperation.

There are two cozy dining rooms and a bar with a stage for musicians. A charming outdoor fireplace on a patio outside the bar lets diners or drinkers listen in toasty comfort.

We started with some garlic bread, largely because I had to see what could make half a loaf worth $7.95. The short answer is not much. It's simply lukewarm garlic bread with a bit of butter and some shreds of Parmesan on top. Still, it's better than the flabby slices of cold olive bread and squares of focaccia to dip in the now-ubiquitous balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

The colorful Italian sampler platter was more promising, with its bruschetta, artichoke dip and healthy heap of calamari with marinara sauce. The calamari, which was tender and freshly fried, was the best. The artichoke dip may have been pretty familiar, but it did have a lot of artichoke, giving it a pleasing chewiness. The bruschetta cried out for more garlic and crunchier bread.

Salads were tossed with the dressing, and I especially liked the creamy Parmesan. The Caesar salad greens were a bit wilted, and not really worth $2.50 more than the green salad.

The entrees look impressive on oversized plates with green marbled borders that match the kitchen's green granite counter top. My husband's blackened opah, a special of the day, was easily the most inspired dish we tried. Slices of juicy fish were splayed out across a bed of linguine mixed with a julienne of green beans, carrots and baby corn.

My potato-crusted halibut, marked as a "signature item" on the menu, tasted great, though a friend observed that the blocky fillet, wrapped in buttery slices of potato, looked like a fish burrito. The flaky snow-white flesh, dressed with the slightest drizzle of lemon butter sauce, lay on a bed of white and wild rice, with asparagus and baby carrots marooned on one edge of the plate. The presentation was nice, but I was beginning to detect a pattern: Every garnish was basically carrots and asparagus or green beans. A little too close to TV dinner for me.

The filet mignon and shrimp starred grilled aged beef (it tasted more like sauteed, to me). The better half of this surf-and-turf combo was the shrimp--three large ones, standing at upended attention--with a wonderful sweetness set off by a classic wine-and-butter sauce.

Service is not a strong point here. Our waitress neglected to take the order for our entrees until we were finished with the appetizers and then forgot to ask how we wanted the lamb cooked. So the rack of lamb was cooked medium to medium well, and our meal dragged out beyond 2 1/2 hours.

Aside from this gaffe, the reason for my dissatisfaction was becoming clearer. Although Spaghettini obviously uses the finest ingredients, the cooking lacks the inspiration or creativity that its prices would lead diners to expect. It's safe, middle-of-the-road cuisine with predictable garnishes and lackluster seasoning, and it left me wishing I'd just ordered an appetizer platter and a glass of overpriced wine and sat in the bar to listen to the music.

Still, I returned for lunch with a friend who had recommended the place, ready to give the pastas a chance.

At lunch, service was more patient and personable, with helpful suggestions about which dishes were best. My friend, who said she almost always orders the salmon piccata, chose the cranberry-and-orange-glazed chicken breast special instead.

My penne was mixed with choice wild mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes and cloaked in a very pleasing roasted garlic cream sauce spiked with a little wine. I loved the flavors but found the slices of chicken sausage a bit disconcerting as I bit down into indistinguishable hard bits in them from the first mouthful onward. Gristle? Bone? Ends of garlic cloves? Regardless, I prefer my sausage smooth, not chunky.

My friend's boneless chicken was painted with homemade cranberry sauce and served on a bed of mashed potatoes with--you guessed it--asparagus and baby carrots. The result was not showy, but it was tasty enough and very appropriate for early fall.

The chocolate souffle cake was a knockout, a warm black disk of milk chocolate suspension topped with chocolate shavings and surrounded by a sea of classic vanilla-infused creme anglaise and a couple of fanned strawberries. The texture was some amalgamation of mousse, frosting and fudge, at once substantial and light.

About this time, I spied the salmon piccata, which had all the drama I'd been looking for in the food. There it was coming out of the kitchen: a bed of sauteed green spinach with pinkish salmon and a flourish of frilly fried onions on top.

If all of the food at Spaghettini had looked that good or tasted as good as the chocolate souffle cake, I would have been completely jazzed.

Spaghettini is moderately expensive. Appetizers are $9.95 to $15.95, dinner entrees, $17.95 to $29.95; desserts, $6 to $8. Lunch entrees are $11.95 to $19.95; desserts, $7.

BE THERE

Spaghettini Italian Grill and Jazz Club, 3005 Old Ranch Road, Seal Beach; (714) 960-6002. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 5 to 11 p.m. Jazz nightly except Monday. Full bar is open until about 12:30 a.m. All major cards.

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