Monte Carlo

I-95 North, Exit 29-B



Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 5 to 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday.

Prices: Most dinner entrees $12 to $16.

Credit Cards: All major cards accepted.

If dinners consisted of nothing but entrees, Monte Carlo would be a pretty impressive restaurant. The crew knows how to buy meat and seafood and how to cook them properly. The menu features grilled beef, fish and chicken, prime rib, and a few seafood and pasta specialties. Monte Carlo's weak points lie in what comes before and after the main course. The weak- nesses notwithstanding, you can design a good dinner here if you order with care.

This is a big, multiroom restaurant of striking good looks, situated where Plata Grande used to be. The center dining room, with its peaked skylight ceiling, is particularly lovely, bright and cheery during the day, cozily lighted by candles at night. The service has been pleasant and responsive. Prices are moderate, but don't look for bargains here.

Among the appetizers are the customary smoked salmon, shrimp cocktail and oysters on the half shell, which probably are good choices. Judging from the fine crab imperial entree, the crab-stuffed mushroom caps probably are a good bet too.

But avoid the fettuccine Alfredo, a bland, soupy glob that no amount of seasoning at the table can rescue. (Based on this dish, it might be a good idea to sidestep the cream sauces here.)

The same blandness afflicts the seafood bisque, which resembles a floury white gravy. The onion soup is a decent version, not overly salty and with nicely caramelized, reasonably lively onions.

A standout entree is the prime rib. This is top-quality beef with real flavor and texture. And it has genuine juiciness; it doesn't rely on a bath of salty bouillon to give an illusion of succulence. The top sirloin is the genuine article too, with the right beefy flavor. This is tender meat, yet there is a satisfying bite to it. (Caution: As in many restaurants, if you want your steak medium rare, order it rare.)

Also tops are the daily grilled fish specials, usually served simply with a little lemon-butter sauce. We've had fresh-tasting, firm-fleshed salmon and grouper, cooked perfectly. The crab imperial has been good too, with chunky crab, a minimum of binder and a zippy flavor.

The grilled chicken is pleasant but a little disappointing -- pleasant in that it's the genuine article with real bones and skin (increasingly rare in restaurants these days), disappointing in that it's a bit dry and short on herbs and flavorings.

The rack of lamb is generously portioned and nicely cooked, but it lacks the crusty surface and really juicy interior that's expected of this dish.

Entrees are accompanied by a nice, crusty sourdough bread and a choice from among three salads, all of which could stand improvement. The house salad has a good parmesan-peppercorn dressing, but on two occasions the lettuce has been a little on the old side. The Caesar salad has a dressing that seems to be missing the customary egg yolk, mustard, Worces- tershire sauce and crushed anchovies, and the dressing on the spinach salad is as sweet as a sundae topping.

The only dessert made in-house is an unmemorable peanut butter pie.