RESTAURANT REVIEW : Delights and Downers at an Unlikely Seafood Site

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I have a soft spot for soft-shell crabs, those wholly edible crustaceans from Maryland caught in the process of growing their new husks. The last time I was in Maryland, I was told that traditionally, the best time to start eating soft shells is after the first full moon in May. So I waited until fairly recently to pay a visit to the new Fisherman's Cove on Wilshire Boulevard, where, I was told, the crabs were flown in from Maryland shores.

Fisherman's Cove sits on the ground floor of the Wilshire Brentwood Plaza, a tall office building two blocks west of Bundy Drive. The restaurant itself seems modeled on those big family-type seafood houses like the Enterprise in Santa Barbara and Santa Monica.

Yet the lobby of an office plaza feels an unlikely spot for Fisherman's Cove--perhaps we're just a little too far from the ocean and the cool, salted beach air, from any actual fishermen or anything resembling a cove. Indeed, there are loud disco sounds on the stereo system and the color scheme is bright pink and aqua, with bleached white wood.

The heart of the restaurant is a roomy bar with the menu painted on a large mirror; smokers have a dining room on the western side of the building, and we non-smokers are confined to the long narrow periphery along the windows, a peculiar isolated, walled in alley. Our table gave us a view of Wilshire Boulevard on one side, a wall and an aquarium on the other.

The aquarium was full of bright plastic geometrical shapes and fluorescent yellow and purple and pink fish. Also, through the aquarium, we could see the television in the bar and got a kind of aqueous, fish-eye view of a Lakers game.

As we studied the large menu and the photocopied sheet of daily specials, we were given sourdough toast and butter, which was good for the few minutes the toast was warm and soft. I started out with a big bowl of steamed mussels, some of which were plump and delicious, some not-so-hot, and some downright mealy and brackish. Such unevenness would characterize everything we had to eat at the Cove. Meals were alternating bites of the good, the average and the bad. Portions were quite generous.

The scampi appetizer, big, sweet, toothsome shrimp on some very ordinary rice pilaf, was an entree in size and substance. Fried calamari were perfectly OK, except that a house-made tomato sauce made one clamor for ketchup. The Cajun combination, an array of blackened scallops, fish, and shrimp, was also OK.

The kitchen has difficulty with timing; each visit was characterized by long waits for courses. One night, we waited too long for our appetizers and then, before we were halfway through with the appetizers, were served our entrees. On another night, there was an interminable pause, filled with loud tunes, between our appetizers and entrees. "We're just waiting for your steak," the waiter told my friend who'd ordered steak and lobster. When another 10 minutes had passed, the waiter came up and said, "I made a mistake. I guess it's the lobster that takes so long to cook."

It turned out that both the steak and lobster had been cooked way, way too long. The steak, which was a perfectly nice piece of meat, had been ordered medium rare but was served well done, and the New Zealand lobster tail, also of respectable quality, was dry and rubbery.

Other entrees were similarly uneven. An order of linguine with clams (white sauce) was huge and chock-full of fresh, good clams. And then there was a large slice of very average mahi mahi with a tomato and tarragon sauce: "Just not a great piece of fish," said its eater.

Soft-shell crabs came with the same sauce only without the tarragon. The soft-shells themselves were large and, well, not-so-soft, but rather tough. There was an assortment of steamed, buttery vegetables on each plate, and rosettes of mashed potatoes. What I liked best of all the food I tasted at were the slices of crunchy turnips among the vegetables, which might not be that surprising in a seafood restaurant housed in an office building and distanced in decor and in spirit from any actual fisherman or cove.

Fisherman's Cove Seafood Restaurant-Lounge-Oyster Bar, 12400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 820-3474. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Full bar. All major credit cards. Parking in building. Dinner for two, food only, $30-$80.

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