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The salads included a potato salad with hidden shrimps, figs, and other gourmet ingredients, all lost amid the copious spuds. A bow-tie-pasta-and-crab salad left us asking, "Where's the crab?" An iceberg lettuce salad with Gorgonzola and other goodies had a dessert-sweet maple dressing that recapitulated the horrors of Midwestern college-dorm food.

Hot dishes: A "scampi station" offered stir-fried-to-order small shrimp (about $3 per pound, wholesale), teeny scallops, swordfish, mushrooms, and various garnishes. Its very name is a lie. "Scampi" implies large, meaty prawns, not bland krill. Other hot entrées (salmon and mahimahi) were dead in their chafing dishes; they should have been switched out for fresh batches before we arrived, and I didn't see any switching during the whole two hours we were there.

An "All-American Cheese Maker Selection" next to the raw bar offered a choice of six cheeses -- Tillamook cheddar being a typical example -- all of them so young and innocent, they could have been virgins laid out for sacrifice to some volcano god. Chalky or flat or inane, none was aged enough to savor by adult humans. Spread 'em on baguettes and throw them into the volcano -- let 'em become grilled cheese virgins!

The dessert selection looked like a supermarket display of the final products of an orgy of Betty Crocker mix-mania. The only delicious flavor among them was furnished by big, ripe Carlsbad strawberries. Even if the pastries were housemade from scratch, the Betty Crocker analogy remained apt upon tasting them. We tried many, liked none.

There are worse (if usually cheaper) seafood buffets in town, just as there are worse seaside restaurants. But I was left wondering: What is the purpose of The Shores? Is it to subsidize the Marine Room by serving mediocre ingredients at high prices? Is it to feed an unjudgmental captive audience at the hotel? I'd love to stay there (looks nicer than a Motel 6), but if I did, I'd hoof it a few blocks to Piatti or Barbarella's to buy a dinner with actual flavor at a better price. Unless, that is, I got in off the beach in time for the early-bird special -- I could use the savings to amortize a serious dinner at the Marine Room.

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