By Hook Or By Cook

Land A Top-Notch Catch At Pirate's Cove.

PIRATE'S COVE, THE newest in seafood fare along North Oracle Road, is something of an anomaly.

From the outside, it appears inconspicuously humble, its white clapboard siding and bright blue shutters a testament to a salty and casual ambience. (The space was formerly occupied by the Maine Course).

Once inside, the briny occupants of a lobster tank greet you by waving clamped claws in a gesture that either indicates a hearty welcome or a piteous plea to consider steak for dinner that night. The interior walls are painted a brilliant white with heavy accents of polished, grained pinewood. Nautical gear and antique sideboards provide decorative touches here and there, along with a couple of pirate-dedicated murals.

If one assumes, however, that Pirate's Cove is a casual family diner specializing in fresh seafood, the kind of place where mom, dad and the kids can retreat for a quick, modest bite after a busy day at work and school, this is most definitely not the case.

Check out the white linen tablecloths and the pseudo-leather bound menus. Get a look at those prices and peruse the fairly extensive wine list. Note that there is no children's menu, meaning that the little tykes will either have to graze off your plate or get a full order of something perhaps too sophisticated and certainly more expensive than their young palates can totally appreciate.

When dining at Pirate's Cove, you're in line for a fine dining experience. If it's a discounted family ambience you want, head on up the road to Red Lobster.

The order of the day at Pirate's Cove is fresh -- very fresh -- seafood and prime Angus beef in the form of New York strip steaks and filet mignon. The menu, while not extensive, is nevertheless relatively complete. Shrimp, scallops, orange roughy, salmon, tuna, lobster, steaks, kabobs, chicken and pasta distinguish the offerings in a variety of guises, none of which can be said to be either ordinary or uninteresting. If you haven't yet gotten the idea that Pirate's Cove is a restaurant that is a cut above the mundane, the presentation and composition of its dishes provides the final tip off.

We began by sampling some of the doughy, straight-from-the-oven breadsticks that appeared at the table along with menus and water. There's something enormously reassuring about settling down to peruse a menu while savoring the yeasty pleasure of a warm, butter-slathered hunk of bread; it suggests such promise of what is to come.

In this respect, Pirate's Cove did not disappoint. An appetizer of New Orleans shrimp ($8.75) was exquisite: six large and tender crustaceans curled into a smoldering Cajun sauce of beer, butter, garlic and cayenne pepper. The aroma emanating from the bowl as the dish was placed before us was itself sufficient to please, but the mingling flavors were sensational. There are probably feistier versions of this dish available in the Big Easy, but until I can get to Bourbon Street, this one will do nicely.

Forgoing the typical salad course, we opted instead to sample a steaming bowl of Pirate's Cove New England clam chowder ($5.50). Again, we were delighted with the result. A velvety smooth cream base supported tender cubes of potato, onion, carrots, celery and bits of clam. This gentle soup was simply superb, a far cry indeed from the glorified canned creations encountered in many other venues around town.

As stated earlier, prime steaks are a standard feature at Pirate's Cove, but when presented with the tantalizing option of ocean-fresh seafood, the appeal of beef tends to wane markedly for me.

Especially when the choices include a scintillating cioppino ($18.50), a marvelous fish stew with crab legs, clams, scallops, whole shrimp, salmon and sea bass swimming in a large bowl along with a swirl of fettuccine in a smoky chipotle, saffron and tomato broth. Another order of those mini-loaf breadsticks was called for just to sop up all the delectable juices once the fish and pasta had been dispatched -- a piggish indulgence, perhaps, but one that was relished with great glee.

The grilled salmon ($13.95) was also a hit, even though it was requested thoroughly cooked rather than in the medium-rare state recommended by the menu. Fluorescently pink and seared ever so nicely, the fillet was the perfect foil for an understated soy sweet-and-sour sauce. A delicate rice pilaf and a sautéed melange of julienned squash, bell peppers and wild mushrooms rounded out the flavors of the dish beautifully.

The only fruit of the sea that failed to impress was a pan-seared orange roughy ($18.95). Typically a very mild white fish, orange roughy lends itself well to a variety of sauces and condiments. In this case, the menu promised the accoutrement of a cognac-cream sauce, but when the dish actually arrived it appeared to be sans anything except the most ethereal dusting of lemon and butter. While the fish was consummately tender and fresh, the lack of gustatory gusto was disconcerting. Combined with a mound of plain steamed rice and the same sautéed vegetable melange that was served with the salmon, the platter had an aura of penitential austerity. It's true that one can live without either cream or cognac, but when both are highlighted as essential ingredients in a dish, the expectation is that they will be perceptibly present. Alas, they were not.

Our sole foray into the non-seafood portion of the menu was the herb chicken ($9.95), strips of grilled breast meat tossed with an herbed broth, sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, mushrooms and fettuccine pasta. The dish was satisfactory in all its particulars, but nowhere near as stunning as most of the other dishes we sampled. If there's someone in your party with a powerful aversion to fish, this dish would do, but otherwise, go for the fruits de mer.

Pirate Cove's dessert list is relegated to only a few items at any one time. The good news is that whatever is on the menu that day is likely to be delicious. A New York cheesecake with strawberries and a triple-layer chocolate mousse cake were our only choices, but we hardly felt slighted once we tasted one of the confections. The chocolate mousse cake consisted of hearty layers of fluffy, pale chocolate mousse interlaced with slices of a moist, light cocoa cake. Any thoughts that the cake would be too dense or decadent to enjoy after a full meal were quickly dismissed. In fact, the shared piece disappeared in a flash, making it obvious that everyone would have fared well with a piece of their own.

The service at Pirate's Cove is friendly and mostly efficient, the only rejoinder being that your server seems to work alone, which sometimes means that dishes don't get cleared in as timely and convenient a manner as you might expect in an obviously upscale restaurant.

The only other slight nag is the fluctuating volume of the music playing overhead. When we first sat down, it was suitably muted, but at some point in the evening it was turned up to the point where we could barely hear each other above the bellow. I realize it's hard to please everyone, but I don't think having to shout in order to be heard by your dinner companions is appropriate.

All in all though, Pirate's Cove is a worthy new contender on the local dining scene. It's a little hard to figure out exactly what its niche will be, but for anyone who enjoys fresh seafood, it's sure to please.

Pirate's Cove Restaurant. 5851 N. Oracle Road. 887-2222. Open 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 4:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Full bar. V, MC, DIS, AMEX. No checks. Menu items: $5.50-$18.95.
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