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Still Waters Run Muddy

Photo by Anne Fishbein

Okay, let's start with the name. Menemsha. Rhymes, somewhat, with dementia. It's an Algonquin word meaning "still waters" and is also a fishing village in Martha's Vineyard. And now, a New England-themed restaurant and seafood bar in Venice. Menemsha did not at first seem to me like the most memorable name for a restaurant, but after repeating it a zillion times to the people I took there with me, the word has stuck in my memory like a foxtail in a sock, and I've begun to suspect that this is no accident.

Menemsha, Menemsha, Menemsha . . . Brought to us by Brad Johnson (the club operator and restaurateur formerly responsible for Roxbury and Georgia and, presently, the Sunset Room), Menemsha is a quietly elegant, grown-up restaurant with a tastefully understated Yankee maritime theme — in all, a sort of restrained and upscale Castaways. Walls are the varnished wood of yachts, banquettes are blue canvas, the only art is a blown-up color photo — a riff on the old-fashioned photomural — of white cliffs. Maine lobsters glower from a tank set into the wall. Oysters loll on ice at the raw bar just inside the entrance. Outside, the patio has a retractable canvas roof for winter; inside, it's surprisingly lively with assorted families and dates and business associates.

The menu, like the name, requires multiple scans, as it lacks focus, continuity and immediate appeal. Executive chef Joachim Weritz was trained in Germany and has cooked in France, Italy and New York. Just prior to his tenure with Menemsha, he worked in catering for the Patina Group. The menu seems an odd, uneven mix of the restaurant's stated New England theme and Weritz's varied background. Some dishes veer into the neighborhood of a fine-dining experience while others drift more toward banquet fare.

Appetizers do hew largely to New England, starting with a salty clam chowder chock-full of fresh, chewy clams. Just as fun in the mouth are the larger, crunchy, fried Ipswich clams served with a lemon-drenched homemade tartar sauce. The house salad changes daily; I order a good blue cheese, pecan and endive mix. It is strange — and off-putting — to have mussels and littleneck clams sold by the half-dozen and dozen; somehow an uncounted bowlful seems more generous. Cod cakes are crusty and tasty, but the lobster roll, sweet cool lobster meat bursting from a warm buttery roll, is by far the winning first course — though if you eat all the onion rings and coleslaw, you might be ready for dessert.

Fresh oysters — opened for you by erudite, helpful raw-bar countermen — are lovely, especially the sweet, small Malpeques. Also from the seafood bar is a shrimp cocktail consisting of three huge, slightly soggy Maine shrimp in a sundae glass with Bloody Mary cocktail sauce.

I'm most confused by the main courses, a willy-nilly, idiosyncratic selection of pastas, specific fish preparations (grilled salmon, baked bluefish, fish and chips, lobster in a bread-crumb casserole or in a classic "bake") and other American entrées (pot roast, steak, roast chicken) that seem to be a straggly list of Castaway specials rather than a chef's containing vision. That said, some of the preparations are slyly delicious, pure Americana prepared by a classically trained chef: In particular, the oven-baked bluefish topped with lump crab and buttered bread crumbs on rice pilaf has its charms. Fish and chips are way too greasy and need vinegar or lemon — but where oh where is our waiter, so we can request such things?

More bread-crumbs bedeville, the lazy man's lobster, whose meat has that slightly medicinal tinge of the not-just-caught. And the Yankee pot roast cannot be blander, the meat soft and served with overly sweetened roasted vegetables and a hummock of vaguely horseradished mashies — truly American food at its most spineless. And yet there are pretensions here, or aspirations. Our waiter, for example, sententiously warns that the chef grills the salmon fillet rare or medium rare. Yet our plate of it arrives decidedly well-done — though it comes with delicious, unannounced sautéed pea sprouts.

Desserts are the strongest component of the meal: Apple pie sings with the salty tang of Cheddar cheese in the crust; a maple-flavored crème brûlée makes fans out of everyone; and even the ordinary chocolate lava cake has a memorable bittersweet depth. But one night, we wait so long for our dessert, we eventually have to ask for the check without it. To Menemsha's credit, the management does apologize and sends a complimentary piece of pie home with us. But other service glitches — long waits, mistaken orders, vanished waiters — tempered each visit.

Menemsha, Menemsha, Menemsha: It may mean still waters, but the water is still choppy.

Menemsha, 822 Washington Blvd., Venice, (310) 822-2550. Lunch and dinner Sun.-Thurs. 5:30-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5:30-11 p.m. Entrées $16-$42. Full bar. Takeout. Valet parking. AE, D, MC, V.