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Hook, Line and Stinker

We live in the era of restaurants as entertainment. Don't accept that? Then take a trip down the Richmond Strip past Chuy's (Mexican fiesta!), Billy Blues (barbecue party!), Rock Bottom Brewery (brew-pub revels!). Now, to join the festivities, comes the King Fish Market (seafood soiree!), a late May addition to the stretch of Richmond between Fountainview and Hillcroft.

As concept restaurants go, the King Fish Market has all the bases covered. It's a worthy exemplar of the eatery-cum-market that's currently big in Los Angeles, where restaurateurs aren't satisfied to sell you just your meal, but want to push their raw ingredients and condiments as well. King Fish is housed in a clean, spare space with massive decks and multitudinous ceiling fans. The staff, uniformed in collarless polos, khaki shorts and hiking boots, is young and energetic. There is much gym time in evidence. The decor is wittily maritime, with the tone set by an immense game fish leaping over the host's podium -- a game fish wearing a silver-spangled saddle. The walls are busy with a veritable Sea World of creatures, including a mammalian dolphin. Fortunately for Flipper fans, these trophies only appear stuffed. In point of fact, they're artificial.

And that's my biggest problem with King Fish Market's ambiance. It feels like the Disney version of a seafood restaurant. Everything, including the cuisine, is just a little too carefully thought out.

Don't get me wrong. There are many things to recommend at the King Fish Market, not the least of which is the "all you can eat" Maine lobster that's the main feature of Thursday nights. This is a truly remarkable promotion, in which diners are invited to scarf down as many of the pricey crustaceans as they care to for just less than $40. The live, mottled green lobsters may be seen creeping about in a tank immediately to the left of the entrance, and mere minutes later, the creatures arrive at your table, steamed to a brilliant red, their carapaces ready for cracking.

Be careful. These things are a lot bigger than mudbugs, and those claws can be sharp; for those unfamiliar with the New England ritual of lobster demolition, it's best to consult a professional, of which the King Fish Market offers a cheerful plenitude. The staff is more than willing to help, either by giving on-the-spot instruction or actually extracting the meat for truly squeamish patrons. That lobster-decorated plastic bib they tie around your neck might feel goofy, but it serves a purpose, especially when the claws are cracked. Those boogers can squirt.

After all this effort, the amount of delicately flavored meat uncovered can be amazingly small. But there's no stinting at the King Fish. The servers circulate constantly, asking diners, "Are you ready for another?" "Can I bring you some more?" On one recent visit, a neighboring diner was working on his fourth lobster with no sign of quitting any time soon; there was, however, no staff panic evident. In fact, when another diner barely finished one crustacean, the waiter seemed genuinely concerned. "It's all you can eat, you know," he advised. Such generosity speaks well of the place.

The whole, boiled lobster is accompanied by warm, crusty sourdough bread, a small salad of mixed lettuces with decorative strips of red and yellow peppers, tomato and cucumber rounds; the traditional corn on the cob; and a good-sized baked potato. The spuds are first class. Crispy skinned and filled with chunks of real bacon and sour cream (nothing faux here), they're worthy heirs to Houston's original specialty baked potatoes, which were served at Ye Old College Inn.

Now stay with me here. This speaks to the very thought-out aspect of the King Fish Market. Ye Old College Inn, which was near Rice University back in the 1940s, introduced Houston to the now ubiquitous stuffed, skin-on, baked potatoes "Rubbed, Scrubbed and Thrown in the Tub." That old-timey steak house restaurant was owned by a man named Ernie Coker. And if you look on the King Fish menu under appetizers, you'll see him memorialized. Oysters Ernie ($6.95), which are fried oysters improbably sauced in A-1, sherry and spices, were Coker's signature dish. King Fish Market owner Chris King knows this because he's a fifth-generation Houstonian, and his mother had an old Ye Old College Inn cookbook.

The King Fish's own cookbook is uneven. Among the standouts are the crab cakes ($6.95), which recently garnered a second place award in the Great Tastes of Houston contest. Eisenhower-dollar sized and just charred enough to add flavor, they hide a hint of Cajun-style spice, as well as bits of raw onion. Four of them come agreeably arranged with mandarin orange slices, which provide a cool, nicely sweet/tart contrasting taste, and a creamy serrano garlic mayonnaise.

The mayonnaise base for several of the salad dressings, however, is less successful. It overpowers the otherwise interesting remoulade and mango mint offerings, which as a result do nothing to redeem the bland Arturo's Whole 9 Yard Salad ($9.95), a huge mound of iceberg lettuce (which on one recent visit had already gone brown around the edges) topped with too-chewy cold boiled shrimp and crab claws; thin slices of cold-brined salmon; and artichokes, avocado, slender, cold asparagus spears and a couple of cold broiled scallops.

Much better to stay with the grilled and fried offerings. The grilled Caribbean lobster tail, which comes in both half-pound ($19.95) and full-pound ($34.95) versions is delicious, and in my view a better lobster choice than the more subtle Maine variety. Peppery, nicely spiced and charred to perfection, the large portion of meat is served on its spiky shell for decorative purposes. The accompanying mashed potatoes are indeed homemade, with some much-appreciated lumps in evidence, but on the whole, they're too heavily creamed. The yellow-squash-and-zucchini medley is forgettable. A better bet here would be a side order of the house cole slaw. It's sweet without being cloying, and not drowned in dressing, so that the flavors of the just-crisp-enough green and purple cabbage, as well as a wisp of onion, are allowed to come through.

The fried seafood platter ($12.95) comes atop a mountain of nicely crisp French fries. The oysters and fish fillet are okay, but the shrimp are fried tail-on, which can be an unpleasant surprise. An even more unpleasant experience can be in store for those eating the exceptionally fine tempura shrimp tacos. During a recent visit, a diner failed to notice that the clever little red-plastic toothpicks used to keep the tacos rolled had gotten lost in the double-wrapped white-corn tortillas. Ouch. The toothpicks, cutely adorned with tiny plastic lobsters, manifested themselves as a spiky shock amid a mouthful of otherwise light and flavorful tempura battered shrimp. If you keep a close eye out for the toothpicks, two of these tacos ($5.95) (there's also a three-taco option) make a lovely appetizer. Served with little pots of black beans, spicy pico de gallo and a flavorful habanero salsa, they can also be a light meal in themselves.

Desserts are so huge as to be overpowering. The apple pie ($4.95) truly is one-quarter of a pie, and the chocolate-hazelnut torte ($3.95) drizzled with fudge sauce, which is, surprisingly, cylindrical, is so rich and fudgelike that it's impossible to get through. Best to settle on one dessert the table can agree on and share.

One serious caveat: the King Fish Market doesn't accept reservations. On lobster night, or on an evening when events such as a sports-talk radio show are attracting large numbers of people, the wait can be up to half an hour for inside seating. There's usually seating at the bar, where a colorful faux stained glass bartop depicts undersea scenes, and on the massive decks, but outdoor dining in what (not improbably) has been made the smoking section can be an odd experience for those who prefer no fumar. I don't know about you, but as far as I'm concerned, three women at the next table firing up baseball-bat sized cigars that smell like a junior high locker room does nothing for the delicate taste of seafood.

King Fish Market, 6356 Richmond Avenue, 974-3474.


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