A pretty fair catch
Shells stands out among the chain gang with variety, quality

BY POLLY CAMPBELL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Shells, the new casual seafood restaurant in Florence, is pretty good -- for a chain. Grudging praise, I know, but any restaurant that's traded on the NASDAQ has to work hard to convince me I'm going to get more than high concept and mediocre food.

While Shells certainly has chain-like characteristics, it also has a surprisingly wide variety of seafood of good quality. Plus, the food is reasonably priced and generously served.

Shells
**1/2

Food: Good.

Service: Fair.

Atmosphere: Fair.

Value: Excellent.

What: Florida-based chain specializing in seafood, especially shellfish, casually served.

Where: 4931 Houston Road, Florence.

When: 4-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 4-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and noon-10 p.m. Sunday.

Recommended dishes: Seafood Siciliano, Alaskan King Crab, Baby Lobster Pasta, fish of the day, apple cobbler.

Vegetarian choices: Poor. Onion rings, fried mushrooms, salad and dessert.

Prices: Appetizers: $1.95-$6.95. Seafood pastas: $8.95-$9.95. Other entrees: $5.95-$16.95 (higher for king crab at market price).

Reservations: Not taken.

Sound level: High -- 78 decibels on a Tuesday night, 84 on a Friday. (Most restaurants range from 60 decibels, a dignified calm, to 90 decibels, a din).

Miscellaneous: Full bar, children's menu, high chairs, booster chairs, smoking and non-smoking sections, wheelchair-accessible, takeout for everything except raw oysters and clams.

Paying for it: American Express, MasterCard, VISA, Discover.

Phone: 647-2300.

The emphasis is on shellfish. In addition to fried and grilled fishhouse standards, there is an unpretentious selection of lighter, more contemporary dishes, including lots of seafood pasta.

Obviously, plenty of people have none of my reservations about chain restaurants. The Shells bar on a Friday night conjured sardine images. Perhaps all these people had eaten at one of the 32 Shells in Florida. The company chose Greater Cincinnati for its first location north of Florida because it had a heavy representation of Cincinnatians among its out-of-town customers.

We spent the hour and half we waited for a table drinking frozen Margaritas at the bar and eating peanuts. You're supposed to toss the peanut shells on the floor -- but not the shrimp shells. We left a neat pile on the table from our quarter-pound of steamed shrimp ($3.95). This was the best appetizer -- nothing but pink sweet meat, warm from the steamer, with some cocktail sauce and lemon.

If that's too simple, try Jack Daniels Buffalo Shrimp ($5.95) -- shrimp fried in a batter, coated with a sweetish Tabasco sauce and served with celery and blue cheese dressing a la Buffalo chicken wings. Or share heavier conch fritters ($3.95), fried balls of batter concealing a chewy nugget of conch meat.

Crab cakes ($3.95), though they include substantial pieces of crab meat, were too deep-fried in texture to appeal to me. I would have ordered oysters on the half shell ($3.95 per half dozen) but there's no ''R'' in May, and Shells follows the old-fashioned rule of not eating (or serving) oysters in months that don't include an R.

Easy entree decision

The entree I liked best was seafood Siciliano ($9.45). It includes shrimp, scallops, clams, crawfish and mussels, which makes the decision of what to order much easier. All this seafood is served on linguine in a tomato sauce that's not a traditional taste-hiding marinara, but a lighter, more brothy sauce that lets the ocean flavors come through.

Baby lobster pasta ($9.95), on the other hand, is heavenly for a while, but doesn't have enough variety to stay interesting. I took half a portion home. The linguine is covered with a smooth cream sauce, dotted pinkly with the unusual choice of baby lobster tails. They aren't really baby lobsters who will never grow up -- they're langostinos, a different, smaller and more delicate crustacean.

Maybe seafood tastes best if you have to work for it a little, like Alaskan King Crab ($24.95, that night's market price). This is eating mano a mano, grappling with spiky shells, ripping and tearing and picking. But the reward for all the work is wonderful, sweet crab meat that fills the shell and makes you wish you never again had to eat fake crab. It's served with coleslaw made with mandarin oranges and steamed potatoes. Dungeness crab and snow crab are also on the menu.

Blackened shrimp pasta ($9.45) has a Cajun kick to it, though the shrimp didn't really seem blackened. Fresh fish (market price $13.95 the night I was there) changes day to day. One night's choices were grouper, tuna and swordfish. The grouper was grilled, kept moist and flaky. Fresh vegetables along side included Chinese cabbage.

map The only standout dessert is apple cobbler ($2.95), a modest portion served warm in a coffee mug with ice cream. I liked it better than the Key lime pie ($2.45).

Box with awnings

Though the food is above multilocation standards, the atmosphere is pure chain. The neighborhood is nothing but family dinner chains, architecturally alike boxes with awnings. Shells' smallish dining room is noisy and crowded, but it doesn't go overboard on the dockside decor -- just corny retro-style signs like ''Our Fish Swim in Praise.''

The servers are young and sometimes unsure. The food came too quickly, but we had dirty dishes sitting on our table all the way through dessert one night. We had to ask for a take-home container several times, and wait for water.

Reviews are done anonymously at Enquirer expense. Ratings take into consideration quality of food, service, presentation and atmosphere, balanced against price.

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