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RESTAURANTS / Max Jacobson : The Food's Not Half Bad When the Kitchen Decides to Play It Straight

September 08, 1989|Max Jacobson

At Capers in Dana Point, chef Kelly McGinnis (formerly of the Rib Joint in Newport Beach) has designed a menu where simple foods, especially fish, are subjected to a variety of, well, original treatments. Many of his dishes remind me of a line from a Bob Newhart routine in which he wonders what would happen if an infinite number of monkeys were allowed to sit at an infinite number of typewriters. "To be or not to be," reads one monkey's tome, "that is the gzornenplatt ."

Some results of McGinnis' apparently random selection? How about chicken sauteed with capers and macadamia nuts? Or mahi in coconut-lime butter?

Actually, the food at Capers isn't half bad when the kitchen plays it straight. I couldn't taste the capers in the Chardonnay-caper dressing on the garden salad, but the salad was cold and crisp, with big, garlicky croutons. Even better, you can choose a Caesar salad with your main course at no extra charge. It's a noble Caesar, definitely not for wimps, chock-full of anchovies and minced garlic. It might be the best dish the restaurant serves.

If I sound grouchy, realize that my dinner at Capers got off to a rather shaky start. Capers occupies the site of the former Dana Trader restaurant, sporting a new decor that tries admirably to be beachy: Window tables seem to hang over the Coast Highway like small bluffs, and the basic casualness of the dining room is set off by plenty of blond woods, pastel violets and nautical paintings.

My first problem there was finding a wine that was more than a year old. Then, when we wanted him to open the wine we had chosen, the waiter was nowhere to be found.

When he finally did arrive, he suggested that we begin our meal with the basil-leek loaf bread. I thought it sounded good, maybe a crusty loaf with herbs and onions baked right into it. No such luck. It was a heated loaf of sourdough covered with an oily, cheesy pasta topping.

There were other appetizer problems. Of three small plates we ordered--popcorn shrimp, chicken fingers and onion rings--only the chicken fingers arrived hot. I must admit that the shrimp were very nice anyway, slightly spiced and plump, with a very proper remoulade on the side. They could have been great if they had been piping hot. And the onion rings, served in a basket with Parmesan, had a tasty batter with an appealing crunch (although I could have done without the bonus fried scallop that popped up in the basket). But the chicken fingers, though nearly radioactive with heat, were another matter. They had been burnt to a crisp and were served surrounding a horrid lime dipping sauce.

Of the dinner plates, some worked and some didn't. Red snapper with lemon and capers made perfect sense; capers and lemon work well together, and a fish such as snapper can stand up to the capers' strong, distinctive taste. Charbroiled salmon with dill sauce, despite a lusty overcooking, was logical as well: Dill sauce goes beautifully with salmon. Even shark with macadamia nut butter had its moments: The macadamia butter was nice and toned down, and the fish had a hearty firmness.

But I couldn't make sense of the swordfish steak in caper butter--the fish was practically tasteless, and the caper butter only added a bitter aftertaste. Fried coconut shrimp with lime dipping sauce was another dish best quickly forgotten.

The shrimp were burned beyond recognition, and the shredded coconut batter made each one look like an alien creature--perfect for the scary-looking lime dipping sauce, at least.

Non-fish eaters can find consolation in such dishes as prime rib, New York steak and pork chops. The pork chops are good, but unappetizing apple-brandy sauce gets glopped right on top of the meat. I would have it served on the side, then ignore it.

Capers is moderate to expensive. Small plates are $1.95 to $8.95. Dinner plates are $6.95 to $29.95 and include soup or salad, rice pilaf or fresh vegetable. The wine list is well chosen, but ask for vintages; they're not indicated. There is a good selection of non-alcoholic beverages, including Moussy beer and Koala spring mineral water.

CAPERS

34150 Coast Highway, Dana Point.

(714) 661-3983.

Open daily for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., dinner 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.

American Express, MasterCard, Visa accepted.

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