It would be easy to mistake The Wharf for a grand old seafood house. Dark planking and heavy knotted ropes, flickering table candles and comfortable oversized chairs lead us to imagine this as the watering hole for onshore sea dogs, minus the salty sea air, of course.

The menu too looks promising, full of oceanic edibles and only slightly compromising in its offerings of beef and chicken. And on the wine list are some rather respectable offerings by the glass.

A warm greeting from the host sets the tone. Service, too, is breezy and efficient, even amusing: "Jacques Cousteau is one of my best friends," sighed a waitress in mock grief as she dipped into the lobster tank for someone's dinner.

So it was a disappointment to discover not a venerable purveyor of fresh fish but a restaurant that is erratic in its execution. What is adequate one visit can be a ringer for fast-food fish the next.

A good example of this establishment's inconsistency was the crab soup, its texture reminiscent of pudding on the first visit, paste on the second, and lacking much crab meat on either occasion. But the disappointments didn't stop with a single appetizer: The flavorful, warmed rolls we encountered on one occasion were dried out on another; the crisp, golden french fries were undistinguished on a second visit and even the delicious coleslaw I originally was served lacked much character thereafter.

Except for a couple of salads, the appetizers are culled from the waters. (Exactly which waters I'm uncertain after one bad encounter with the oysters nouvelle, which were six less-than-fresh-tasting shellfish topped with bits of crab meat for richness and then doused in a dreadfully neutral cream sauce and baked.) There are also shrimp and lump crab meat cocktails, marinated scallops, cherrystone clams and oysters on the half shell. A hot appetizer combination features some of that lineup and does well with pleasantly spiced clams casino and oysters Rockefeller, dolloped with spinach and briny in flavor.

Of the main courses, you'd probably do well by sticking with something simple, such as the broiled "catch of the day"; the fish specials have been moist and tender, indeed fresher tasting, than the fried stuff.

Tread carefully elsewhere on the menu, though: The Wharf's deep-fried shellfish platter is a "kitchen sink" sampling of clams, oysters, scallops, shrimp and a wet little crab cake, certainly no worse than the platters the chain restaurants offer but not much more inspiring, either. And with our eyes closed it would have been difficult to discern shrimp from scallops from fish on the seafood brochette, served alongside a bed of similarly tasteless rice. Certainly I'd avoid anything sauced, such as the seafood newburg, which tasted as floury as the crab soup, which it closely resembled. Sides of vegetables have been mere afterthoughts -- waterlogged zucchini and dreary cauliflower were leached of taste.

What's to recommend this restaurant? The Wharf deserves high marks for comfort and esthetics, but it reinforces the notion that good seafood has yet to reach our perimeters. Less of a gamble, and certainly more appealing, would be this restaurant's lively upstairs lounge, which has become a destination for music lovers throughout the area.