Heather West won season two of "Hell's Kitchen," Gordon Ramsay's high-decibel abusefest. The new chef at Schafer's, she now faces a bigger challenge.
This sprawling downtowner offers a harbor view and a postcard look. There's a sense of the site's history, starting with the big photo near the bar showing Schafer's most notable predecessor, the Schooner restaurant, and vintage Port Jeff.
Visit on a busy night and you'll see how hard it is to turn an old boat around. Schafer's barely earned a one-star rating in 2012. So far, West's efforts get it just beyond that.
The problems start with the service, from a sullen maitresse d', unconcerned that your 40-minute wait will go on a little longer; to the frazzled waiter, who acts as if he's juggling nitroglycerin. On a quieter night, the dining room staff is less pressured, and in a better mood.
When the crowd shrinks, the food improves, too. A satisfactory crabcake is decorated with arugula, roasted corn salsa and cilantro-lime cream. The creamy L.I. clam chowder, with roasted corn and jalapeño bacon, is respectable, along with the modest lobster bisque. Same for the shrimp cocktail.
But the "twisted" shrimp cocktail, served in a cocktail glass, with chopped shellfish submerged in a Bloody Mary sauce, makes you wince. And a trio of miniature lobster rolls on little croissants manages to be both overorchestrated and underseasoned.
Your meal improves with the tasty fish tacos, made with cod and tempura batter, set on grilled tortillas, bulked up with avocado, cilantro, shredded cabbage and mango-black bean salsa. The salsa also buttresses rosy tuna Serignese, set on wasabi-ignited mashed potatoes. Fish-and-chips is a dependable main course, with enough crunch, snowy cod and lemon-horseradish aioli. Tinted scarlet seared scallops: good, with potato-parsnip puree and a shaved fennel- and-arugula salad.
The generous chicken rustico, marinated in white wine and grain mustard, rests on whipped potatoes and broccoli raab. Pan-seared filet mignon arrives tender and cooked to order. The hefty braised short ribs flake on cue.
"Broken down s'mores" is the prettiest dessert, a three-part production with chocolate cake, a huge toasted marshmallow and candied pieces of Graham cracker. Pistachiolis pack ice cream into cannoli shells to playful effect. But ice-cream sliders mean overdone, mini-waffle sandwiches; and the bourbon bacon brownie sundae is worse than it sounds. The warm doughnut holes, with coffee ice cream and hot fudge, suggest zeppole but no feast.
Gordon Ramsay said West earned her TV accolade, in part, because of her determination.
She'll need it.