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RESTAURANTS / Max Jacobson : Very Tasteful, but Definitely Not Flavorful

In the blush of youth when things were free and easy, we were more accepting. We loved everything. Perhaps that explains why I was so impressed with Scott’s Seafood Grill the very first time I ate there.

It was 1976; I had just arrived in California, and Scott’s was a smart new addition to San Francisco’s Marina district. Never before had I seen such attractive plates of fresh seafood, such smartly dressed young women, such raffish young men, their Porsches parked curb-side, ready to dash off into a Chardonnay-drenched sunset. I thought I had found Paradise.

Now that I am older and Scott’s has opened in Costa Mesa, I have experienced Paradise lost.

This is not to say that the new Scott’s does not have much to recommend. It does. Far more beautiful than its San Francisco counterpart, it recalls a Mediterranean villa surrounded by palm fronds. As you approach the restaurant, you are struck by its insouciance--you can’t wait to go inside.

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Stepping through the door, you are immediately riveted by an exhibition kitchen with enough copper to bankrupt a small mining town in Colorado. A spaciously structured dining area offers the choice of elegantly draped tables flanked by soft leather designer chairs, or plush, brightly upholstered booths comfortable enough to nap in. Overhead, small white fans turn languidly, a la Rick’s Cafe Americain, circulating soft breezes. The outdoor patio is framed by latticed, wood-framed French windows, and even the bathrooms have marble floors.

All of which makes the new Scott’s one of the most beautiful and tasteful new restaurants in the state--a perfect place at which to sip a Bloody Mary or swirl a glass of trendy boutique wine. There are plenty of beautiful people present too, thanks to Scott’s location near the Performing Arts Center and various movie theaters. One would rush to predict a great future.

But one would not rush to eat here. Scott’s seems to favor the lighter, healthier foods that the aerobic set finds irresistible. Unfortunately, it does not seem to favor flavor.

Spicy Mississippi catfish and coho salmon, two lunch specials, were so utterly devoid of taste that I sent them back to the kitchen--something I rarely do. On the other hand, tender swordfish steak and good fried calamari impressed me.

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It’s a good idea to start with fresh oysters from the bar menu, interesting varietals such as malpeque from Prince Edward Island, or Fanny Bay from British Columbia. Oysters at Scott’s taste quite fresh, served with a mignonette that needs a bit more oomph.

Clam chowder isn’t half bad, either--a thick, pasty version that has plenty of clam broth and chopped clams, though I thought it needed more potato and less flour. Eaten with a cheesy, anchovy-laden Caesar and crusty hunks of the authentic house sourdough, it makes a pleasing light lunch.

Too bad hot appetizers tend toward complexity. Mussels Parisienne (also from Prince Edward Island) come in a large copper crock and look wonderful, but when you bite into them all you can taste is the Pernod in which they were cooked. The waitress was daring enough to ward me off the baked Little Necks (she wrinkled her nose when I asked about them), but in retrospect I wish I had ignored her. Instead, I took her recommendation and tried some gloppy stuffed prawns.

Other dishes were hit and miss. I enjoyed fettuccine with drunken shrimp--pasta laced with chili oil, New Orleans spices and shrimp cooked in Anchor Steam beer. The dish seemed gratuitously spicy, but it had a lot more character than anything else I tried. Steamed, cracked crab was reasonable too--slightly flavorless but salvaged by a delicate dill mayonnaise on the side. An oak-grilled hamburger that was served just about raw . . . well, that’s what you get for ordering meat in a seafood restaurant.

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I liked the desserts. A three-layer chocolate mousse cake was creamy and smoothly rich. Homemade peach blueberry cobbler came with a scoop of the yellowest vanilla ice cream I’ve ever seen. The espresso machine worked too; the coffee was good. And a lesson was learned: Nothing is ever exactly as we remember it.

Scott’s is moderately priced. At both lunch and dinner, appetizers and salads are priced from $2.50 to $13.50. Lunch entrees are $9.95 to $15.95. Dinner entrees are $10.95 to $21.95. There is a special three-course theater dinner for $18.50.

SCOTT’S SEAFOOD GRILL

3330 Bristol St., Costa Mesa

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(714) 979-2400

Open Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

All major credit cards accepted


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