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DAVID NELSON / ON RESTAURANTS

An Attempt at Classic Touch

June 21, 1990|DAVID NELSON

Mention Dante and everyone thinks of the Inferno, a strikingly nasty epic poem to be sure, but, as many forget, only one-third of the Divine Comedy trilogy, which also includes Paradiso and Purgatorio.

There's all sorts of allegorical stuff in each volume about the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, who were the Republicans and Democrats of 14th Century Florentine politics.

Then there is Dante's Restaurant in Mira Mesa; the place is itself a kind of classic.

The motto "Continental dining at its finest" takes the restaurant back to a pre- nouvelle era when "Continental" meant class and implied such things as crisp table linens and thoroughly professional waiters in black tie. The term also indicated a menu that seesawed between French and Italian according to the lights of the chef or management but always, always included onion soup.

Dante's menu includes onion soup and inclines strongly to the Italian side, although there are several steaks as well as prime rib and the once-ubiquitous but now rarely encountered London broil.

In terms of style, the place much resembles a comfortable East Coast suburban eatery of the 1950s or '60s, with brick walls, reasonably low lights, quilted maroon banquettes and carefully set tables (the table settings include a couple of bottles of wine each as a none-too-subtle hint). It seems unsurprising that, whenever there is a lull in the conversation, one hears Frank Sinatra quietly crooning over the sound system.

Entrees begin at $9.95 and end just shy of $20, with most priced neatly in the middle, and these sums buy a good deal of food. Meals include both soup and salad and, as a very pleasant touch, open with a complimentary appetizer plate of decent fried zucchini sticks and excellent salami.

Among the restaurant's minor pretensions to style is an insistence on cart service of the soup and salad. A server recently ladled out bowls of a potage du jour that he labeled shrimp bisque, which it did not seem to be, although this chowder-like soup packed with bay shrimp did have a very pleasant flavor. The salad, tossed table-side, considerably surpassed the usual house mix and included more shrimp along with chopped bacon and egg, to which a honey-mustard dressing added a fine sweet-pungent note.

The menu offers but four pastas, none terribly interesting except, perhaps, the gnochinni , or small dumplings in a choice of meat or marinara sauces. The entree list runs to much greater length and includes a small filet mignon in sherry sauce paired with a choice of chicken or seafood cannelloni; duck in orange sauce and veal Oscar (both standards of Continental cuisine); a house version of scampi that includes capers, mushrooms and brandy; roast chicken; beef liver steak; a simple New York steak and roast pork tenderloin seasoned with garlic.

The seafood cannelloni was sampled on its own and found disappointing in terms of sauce and the soggy crepe wrapper; the filling of mixed shrimp, crab and fish lived up to its billing but was less than ravishing.

The Malaysian tiger shrimp came off much better, the shrimp themselves cooked just to the juicy stage and the creamy white sauce rather nicely flavored with capers, mushrooms and wine. The kitchen arranged the shrimp over a rice pilaf worthy of the name, the grains firm and separate rather than stewed into the goo that usually gets the name "rice pilaf" at area eateries.

Sweetbreads are not everyone's dish--from the point of view of both diners and of cooks--but Dante's serves them anyway. The very simple treatment calls for the meat to be breaded, sauteed and finished with mushrooms and a few drops of wine. Sweetbreads have so mild a flavor (their virtue lies in the extreme delicacy of the meat) that a highly seasoned sauce usually accompanies them, and something of the sort would help Dante's version, which needs a strong flavor boost.

An outside supplier caters the dessert tray, which concentrates mostly on elaborate cheesecakes. The best choice, however, would be the white chocolate-covered "truffles" that enclose a tasty heart of pureed fruit; one of these can, in fact, bring an interlude at Dante's to a rather paradisal conclusion.

DANTE'S RESTAURANT

9397 Mira Mesa Blvd.

Calls: 693-3252

Hours: Lunch served Monday through Friday, dinner nightly except Sunday

Cost: Dinner for two including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, $35 to $70. Credit cards accepted.

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