SILENCE OF THE CLAMS
The scourge of restaurants is making her annual visit to the Valley. Eateries around the country know my mother as the Will Rogers of dining--she never met a meal she didn't like to send back. And the place had better be clean. To my mother, Chanel #5 is no match for the fragrance of Pine Sol, and not nearly as seductive as the aroma of pure ammonia.
Cleanliness, in her mind, is not merely next to godliness; it's a sign of it.
On one of her visits years ago, I decided to whip together a baked chicken dish. She eyed it suspiciously and demanded, "Is this chicken clean?" Inspecting more closely, she exclaimed, "I see pinfeathers. Didn't you singe it like I do? And then wash it in boiling water before you cook it?" I swore I had, and even confessed to have taken a brief shower with it.
She got up and cooked herself two very hard-boiled eggs instead.
What Mom really loves is seafood. Living just north of New York City, she has no trouble indulging her tastes. So she was mighty skeptical about finding fresh fish worth eating in the desert. But curiosity got the better of her doubts, and we convinced her to accompany us to Taylor's Chowder House.
The nautical theme here starts with the portholes on the front door. It looks like the entryway to Captain Nemo's submarine ride at Disneyland.
Inside, nets stretched above half-walls divide the eating areas. Wood paneling lends a weathered, sea-cabin look. Seascape paintings, some for sale, hang about the room.
But the artificial plants looked like they were washed in by the wrong tide. And with its plain Formica tables and red-vinyl booths, Taylor's has a nautico-coffee-shop feel.
So do the patrons. The place was crowded on a recent Friday night with families and couples in shorts and tee shirts. Near us it also was blue with smoke, since there's no nonsmoking area. Everyone was reasonably content with the restaurant's signature New England clam chowder, especially its butterfat content. But in a chowder house, I expected to dredge up a lot more clams than our soups had. The bread let me down, too. On an earlier visit, we got limp slices of sourdough. But this night they brought out warmed sourdough rolls. Unfortunately, they were so mushy that even seagulls would be hard-pressed to get excited about them. But an excellent shrimp cocktail helped us to recover our sea legs. Five large, meaty Guaymas shrimp arrived the way shrimp cocktails have come since homo sapiens first dragged a net from the sea: perched on a tall dish, with shredded lettuce, cocktail sauce and lemon wedge. The sauce was tangy and tasty enough to ladle onto the lettuce once the shrimp were gone.
You can find plenty of main dishes on the menu, but most of our fellow diners seemed to order from the day's fresh catch. Instead of rattling off the specials, the serving staff lugs around big easels with the information.
Mom ordered the Cajun red snapper, a large, flaky portion. But she didn't eat it. It was too spicy, she complained. To my Arizona-toughened tongue, though, it barely moved the needle on the heat meter. But my wife's pan-blackened swordfish was so savory I kept angling for tastes. Like most fresh seafood, plain swordfish tastes too good to be dolled up by the chef. At Taylor's, it came beautifully moist and so generously served that we took some home in a doggy bag. (It was delicious eaten cold the next day, by the way.)
I chose Taylor's attempt at a seafood "dish," something more complex than a grilled slab of fish. Crab corn pie mixed pieces of crab and canned corn in a big puff pastry. The crab and corn made a nice duo, but the pastry was too chewy for the whole ensemble to work in perfect harmony.
The entrees arrived with a choice of two side dishes. Web-shaped fries weren't crispy enough, and the coleslaw was strictly tub variety. But the seasoned rice flecked with green onions and the zucchini in tomato sauce topped with grated cheese were both terrific. Although there were lots of families here, Taylor's has no children's menu. But they had no problem with our kids' splitting an $8.95 plate of chicken fingers and fried shrimp. It's not what I'd order, but it kept them happy.
And the desserts kept us happy, too. The daily menu offered warm baked apple in pastry dough, drizzled with butterscotch sauce. It's a lovely way to end a meal without going over the sweetness edge. The bread pudding was also first-rate, thick with raisins, nuts and shredded coconut.
Despite her objections to the smokers and Cajun snapper, Mom left Taylor's smiling. "This place is clean," she said approvingly. Luckily, so was our next port of call, Pier D'Orleans. It's a darker, more elegant variation on the nautical theme. And, as at Taylor's, you can sit at red-vinyl booths. (Is there some mystic connection between red vinyl and the sea?)
Fishnets are gracefully scalloped across the walls at Pier D'Orleans, with starfish and shells artfully caught up in the netting. Subdued lighting and a dark-brown ceiling create a grotto effect, although the Tiffany-style lamps and artificial plants look like they were left over from a fern-bar close-out. Thankfully, there's a no-smoking section, although occasional wisps of smoke drift over the half-walls. We started with an offbeat appetizer of scallops Rockefeller. Bits of scallop mixed with hollandaise sauce came in five oyster shells, surrounded by spinach--bizarre, but tasty.
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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