SILENCE OF THE CLAMS

The shrimp cocktail, clean as it was, didn't impress my mother. Seven of the critters made for a generous enough serving, but they lacked that just-from-the-sea flavor.

Unlike Taylor's, Pier D'Orleans serves soup or salad with meals. Avoid the reefs of iceberg-lettuce salad and the shoals of ordinary clam chowder. Steam instead to the seafood gumbo, a peppery broth swimming with bits of shrimp, rice and okra. It's doubly delightful because of the thick sourdough bread that doesn't get all gloppy when dipped in various broths and sauces.

The fresh catch here was sparser than at Taylor's. Only trout, catfish and snapper were available. My wife picked the catfish, blackened Cajun-style. It was delicate and surprisingly meaty, and came with three side orders: a lovely dish of red beans and rice goosed up with smoked sausage; a somewhat overcooked platter of mixed vegetables made more palatable by the lake of butter they were swimming in; and a small cup of scallops Bienville, tiny minced scallop, crab and shrimp pieces in a creamy sauce. At $8.95, this Cajun combo was a tasty bargain.

Too squeamish to sample the catfish, Mom opted for grilled trout. It came filleted and, I thought, nicely cooked, just beyond underdone. Surprisingly, Mom agreed that there was no reason to send it back to the kitchen. She chose a baked potato on the side and crunchy, deep-fried zucchini slices. I ordered the bouillabaisse, one of the priciest choices on the menu at $14.95.

If this is bouillabaisse, I'm Maurice Chevalier.
This dish lacks the olive oil, saffron, leeks and tomatoes that give the French specialty its identity. At Pier D'Orleans, bouillabaisse doesn't go beyond being a seafood stew. A big, heavy, black metal pot, bubbling with a briny broth, comes stocked full of shrimp, crab, scallops, mussels, oysters, clams and snapper. However inauthentic, this dish is delicious, and I had no trouble putting it away. There's nothing particularly inventive, clever or fancy about it. It's just a pot of well-simmered, good-tasting aquatic treats. But the miserly serving of garlic toast--just two little crusts--gave me far too little chance to sop up the liquid.

My beaming countenance inspired the others to reach over and repeatedly help themselves. It's true: I can't keep a poker face when my mouth is holding the seafood equivalent of four aces. Pier D'Orleans founders, however, on desserts. The homemade bread pudding was bland enough to qualify for a berth on the McDonald's menu. The key lime pie, its picture so refreshing-looking on the table's promo card, got us to pucker only with dissatisfaction over the commercial taste. The marshmallow-studded rocky road pie had plenty of calories, but little flavor.

Still, Mom was happy with our seafood expeditions. The kids displayed a previously latent talent for eating with cutlery. Nothing had to be sent back. Reasonable prices compensated for the fact that Bethany Home Road is not Broadway. And everything from our waitresses' outfits to the tines of our forks got Mom's certification of cleanliness. "You know," she mused, back at our home that evening, "I think I could even live here."

CAMPING OUT DAVID LOWERY IS BRINGING CR... v7-01-92

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