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Posted on Sun. May. 18, 2014 - 12:01 am EDT

Seafood spot-on at Paula’s

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Paula’s

*** 1/2

Out of a possible five

$$$$

It had been a bone of contention with longtime Journal Gazette Publisher Richard Inskeep, my not-so-flattering review of his favorite restaurant, Paula's on Main.

He never directly criticized me for it because, being the good newspaperman he was, he always stood behind me. But word trickled down.

And when I heard that Dick had died in January, I knew it was time to head back to Paula's. Karma was working, too, because who else was sitting inside the Main Street landmark having lunch during one of my recent visits – Richard's wife, Harriett, along with their daughter Julie Inskeep and her husband, Bobby Simpson.

I got a kick out of seeing them all there, but what I really got a kick out of was the beautiful and delicious-looking shrimp salad Harriett was enjoying. And, karma being what it is, I knew I had to order it.

And it was the most impressive thing I had there.

The herb-grilled shrimp salad was a daily feature, and it included five jumbo, tail-on shrimp that were plump and juicy with just enough herbs to not mask their natural flavor. That was an important factor given Paula's is also a fresh seafood market.

The salad also had sliced almonds, dried cranberries and simple mixed greens and a delectable grapefruit-avocado dressing that was creamy but also bursting with acidic citrus flavor.

It was a perfect spring dish – light, vibrant and modern.

The featured beet salad during another visit was also pretty modern, and it hit all the right notes with peppery arugula, salty bacon crumbles, funky bleu cheese and the earthy name ingredients with a balsamic dressing.

Some more classic dishes also impressed.

One was almost as new as it was old since I have not seen it for years. Baked Alaska was the featured dessert, and it was fantastic. Peppermint ice cream was set atop an Oreo crust and then covered with meringue, which was flambéed to create this mound of decadence. The ice cream was intense, the cookie crust went wonderfully with the mint, but it was the meringue that really shined. It was dense and gooey, more like marshmallow than a classic meringue and that was a good thing.

You will not find better crab cake than the ones at Paula's; not just in Fort Wayne but anywhere.

The Maryland crab cakes were way more crab than cake, which was the key. The folks in the market claim they are “about 97 percent crab” with just some bread crumbs, a top-secret mayonnaise-based binder, herbs, spices and a little red and yellow pepper. They were seared well and served with the restaurant's signature jalapeno tartar sauce. But I never touched the tartar because these meaty, melt-in-your-mouth cakes don't need it. And, yes, you can buy them in the market.

Another dish at Paula's has few rivals in these parts – the jambalaya. Jumbo shrimp were added to the classic concoction of andouille sausage, chicken, green and red peppers, tomatoes, spices, rice and – in a somewhat unique twist – chorizo.

It was a big bowl with plenty of broth for dunking some of the complimentary cheese-crusted bread into. The shrimp were perfect, the rice was al dente and the chicken was fine, but the combination of the peppery Mexican chorizo with the spicy andouille is what really lifted this version of the New Orleans classic.

The fried oysters appetizer also hit the right note. The six batter-covered oysters were fritter-like, but the heavy breading did not hide the briny, sea-infused salty flavor of the shellfish at all.

The tuna sashimi appetizer at Paula's was classically good, and the fish was the star as it should be.

The tuna was just kissed by the fire and it had the customary black and white sesame seeds on top. It had a touch of pepper flavor, but was not spicy-hot. I also loved the soy-drizzled slaw that it was served on top of. And this slaw was more than just a garnish; it disappeared as quickly as the tuna.

There were some big issues during one of my visits that I could only blame on the kitchen.

The Lamb Pops appetizer had all of the makings of a great dish. The three small French-cut chops were crusted with pistachio and drizzled with a balsamic reduction. Two of the “pops” arrived well done instead of medium-rare, and the pistachios on the crust were chewy and soft instead of properly toasted and crunchy.

The Combo Platter is a menu staple and it gives you a taste of two of Paula's classics: a crab cake and the restaurant's wonderful almond-crusted walleye, along with grilled scallops. The walleye was spot-on – crispy outside with plenty of nutty goodness from the almonds.

The scallops, however, were as undercooked as the sashimi tuna. They had clear centers and were gelatinous to the point that I was scared to eat them. And, yes, even the crab cake suffered. This one had been seared until nearly black outside, but was cool and raw in the middle, so it had the texture of bread pudding.

My side of broccoli was cooked plenty, actually overcooked to mush. It also appeared to be frozen instead of fresh.

The other entrée I had during this kitchen-struggling night was much better than the combo, but still had issues. The Tournedos Louis Armstrong features two 4-ounce beef filet medallions topped with blackened jumbo shrimp and topped with a port wine sauce.

The medallions were cooked to the right temperature and were OK as were the shrimp. The filet, however, was not seasoned well and the sauce was flavorless. I could not even tell wine had been used in it.

Adding to this dish's mediocrity was the side of white pasta. It was executed properly and tasted good, but there was not even a cup of it, which seemed chintzy.

The service was uneven. It was very slow during my lunch visit at first but picked up.

During my dinner visit, it was prompt, but I couldn't help but be turned off by the server standing at the bar eating as I waited to be greeted after entering through the back entrance. It was even more disturbing to see her hold a finger up at my party, motioning for us to wait a second while she choked down her food, took a drink of water and wiped her mouth off before tending to us.

Those flaws were not enough to sour me on Paula's on Main, however. It is a beautiful restaurant that stays true to its seafood roots and the good far outweighs the bad. Now I know why Dick Inskeep loved it so much, and why he wasn't too happy with that last review.

I would have loved sitting down with him over a couple of crab cakes and some almond walleye to discuss this one with him.

Restaurant: Paula's on Main

Address: 1732 W. Main St.

Phone: 424-2300

Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday; 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday

Cuisine: Seafood

Handicapped accessible: Yes; entrance in rear

Alcohol: Full bar

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Not really

Menu: Crab cake ($10.95), tuna sashimi ($10.95), Lamb Pops ($11.95), fried oysters ($11.95), shrimp salad ($11.95), Jambalaya ($11.95), combo ($28.95), tournedos ($37.95), baked Alaska ($5.95)

Rating breakdown: Food: ** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: * (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).


Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.


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