Upon entering Oyster Cove Restaurant, located in Lamplighter Square on Foothill Boulevard, I felt as if I were traveling back in time. The sensation was not the kind of time travel that would make good science fiction; but the decor brought back a flood of childhood memories of the seafood restaurants our family frequented during our Cape Cod summers.
Restaurants like Mildred's Chowder House, Baxter's on the Wharf, and Gertrude's Beach Box, unashamedly littered their decor with fishnets, old lobster pots, stuffed giant fish, along with other flotsam and jetsam.Oyster Cove's efforts are similar, but they seem a bit contrived, even antiseptic. Its nautical adornments, from the diving suit to the large fish tanks and paintings (which look like the kind you might see in a hotel lobby rather than at a roadside stand on a windblown coast) are unweathered and neat. Perhaps my discomfort with Oyster Cove's artifice is the reason so many inland seafood restaurants opt for a more generic or grill motif.
Some of the advertisements I have seen for Oyster Cove are also forced. One ad proclaims that "if it swims or crawls anywhere in the seven seas, we'll cook it for you." It was at this point I was glad that my childhood recollections of Esther Williams and the Creature from the Black Lagoon took place long before the recent seafood preoccupation among the dining public.
Oyster Cove's list of offerings is formidable, even without possibilities from Hollywood's imaginative contribution to ocean lore. There are nearly a dozen appetizers alone, ranging from New Zealand green lip mussels, Maryland crab cakes, Novia Scotia lox, to calamari Sicilian and scallops ceviche, a list which just about covers the seven seas. They are available in either half or full order and cost from $3.95 for the calamari to $8.95 for the mussels.
We sampled a half order of the Oysters Rockefeller ($7.95) and the smoked fish platter ($5.25). Both were very good; while the oysters were not as authentically adorned with any noticeable spinach or chopped onions or sauce, they were plump and juicy and subtly seasoned. The smoked fish platter included scallops along with several different delicate fish varieties.
Several soups are also served, as well as shrimp and crab cocktails, seafood louie salads, characterized by a cold mayonnaise and chili sauce dressing, poached salmon salad and a seafood pasta salad. We shared a bowl of the seafood file gumbo ($4.25) and found it to be appropriately piquant with several chunks of fish and one large shrimp. However, there was no okra in evidence, ironic since that is how the dish originally got its name. (The French word for okra is "gombo.")
On our recent visit, 16 specials were on the illuminated blackboard menus that hang in various parts of the interior. About eight other entrees are regularly served. The different entrees cover a broad spectrum of preparations and attempt to cater to a comparably broad spectrum of tastes. Choices range from Alaskan halibut to blackened scrod to sauteed flounder with kiwi and pear butter, all $13.95, to mahi mahi sushi style ($14.95), as well as New York steak with crab and hollandaise sauce ($14.50) to an interesting sounding chicken sautee with bleu cheese and apples ($12.50).
Our capable and calm waitress attempted to answer all our questions as well as make recommendations. I could only wonder how she possibly could - and she did an admirable job. But I also questioned how could such a seemingly modest kitchen (open and in the center rear of the restaurant) give attention to the multitude and uniqueness of its preparations.
The five entrees we tried were evidence that the kitchen could not adequately handle such diverse and different entrees. The Norwegian salmon ($14.95), grilled to perfection and sporting just a slight buttery crust on the outside and moist on the inside, was perfectly prepared. The other more complex entrees were disappointing.
The sauce on the pasta dishes, both the cajun seafood ($12.95) and lobster fettucine ($14.95), were without any distinguishing flavor. To make matters worse, the pieces of Maine lobster in the fettucine were very chewy. Nothing in the description of sauteed scallops with pine nuts and basil ($14.95) matched the flavor - again bland, though the scallops were tender. The anticipated liveliness of the shrimp Indonesian ($16.95) was a mere dash of lime. Even the shrimps had a washed-out flavor. The accompanying rice blend was overly doused with soy sauce.
Dinner prices includes soup of the day, a green salad, sourdough bread, vegetable and choice of potato or rice. Desserts are around $2 extra.
Oyster Cove has the basics in place to capture the attention of the growing number of seafood fans among the dining public. However, the kitchen has a hard time holding a steady course while navigating its lengthy and ambitious menu.
Oyster Cove Restaurant, 1615 S. Foothill Blvd., Lamplighter Square. 583-5533. Lunch served from 11:15 a.m. until 2 p.m.; dinner served from 5 p.m. until 11 p.m. Open 7 days a week. Chowder bar open after 2 p.m. Fish market on the premises. Accepts checks with guarantee card and major credit cards. Reservations accepted.