Things were deathly quiet the other night at Cielo Mare, the restaurant in the Waterfront Hilton at Huntington Beach. It's a huge place, this restaurant, and the only people in it were two couples (neither of which were doing much talking). By contrast, noise was pouring from a hotel function room where a giant office party was in progress. The restaurant deserves a better fate.
The funny thing is that this restaurant seems to do a brisk business at lunch, when it's often filled with small groups of women, business people and those who come alone to dine by the ocean.
But I think the place looks a whole lot more romantic in the moonlight. The decor is more of that pastel and earth-tone stuff that you get from Hilton all over the world; in this case, it's a cross between Louis XIV and Georgia O'Keeffe. The hotel bills itself as a Mediterranean resort, and that's somewhere in the ballpark. It reminds me of one of those places you see on the Mexican Riviera.
The restaurant itself has been done with taste and flair. Chairs are high-backed and plush. There is an abundance of space between tables. The three dining areas are full of little archways and alcoves, all of which are painted a soft beige. There is a trompe-l'oeil ceiling painted sky blue over one portion of the restaurant (cielo means sky in Italian), and a wide panorama of the Pacific, just across PCH (mare means sea). From this restaurant at night, the moon really does hit your eye like a big pizza pie.
The restaurant serves pizza only at lunch, though. Despite its name, this isn't really an Italian restaurant. I'd call it Continental: a patchwork of California, Italian and nouvelle. Still, you eat very well here, in almost any genre.
At lunchtime, the menu is intelligently grounded in light, outdoorsy fare. There is a good stracciatella (Italian egg-drop soup with spinach) and a wonderful black bean soup that comes artistically swirled with creme fraiche and a tomato salsa.
I wouldn't recommend the crab cake as an appetizer. It's indifferently flavored, and a bit matted in texture. Instead, I'd go for one of the salads. The Cobb is particularly good with all the ingredients--including an eccentric ancho chile chicken--in discrete clumps around the greens, rather than all mixed in. The Caesar is made with really fresh greens (but I do prefer my Caesars a little stronger in the anchovy department).
There are some good pastas. Spinach fettuccine with smoked chicken is a real surprise: The noodles are coated in a creamy Alfredo-type sauce and the chicken has an intense, almost herbal aftertaste. It's plenty for two, and the kitchen will be happy to split it.
The dinner menu is more formal, more of what you'd expect from a hotel. The cold appetizers are especially well-conceived. A tender calamari vinaigrette is served with fresh tomato, onion and capers; it's one of the truly Italian things on the menu. Seared lamb carpaccio is about as far from Harry's Bar in Venice (where carpaccio originated) as Casablanca is from Rome. The lamb has been thoroughly cooked, for starters, and is served in thick slices with spiced couscous. However, it's delicious.
The hot appetizers are more Continental in form and spirit. Lobster ravioli come with a chive-crayfish cream. Grilled sea scallops float in a Montrachet wine and sage sauce.
As in most hotel dining rooms, the aim here is to please a wide variety of guests, taking few chances in the process. Largely, Cielo Mare succeeds. You can have just about anything for a main dish here. The waiter told us that if the menu wasn't to our liking, we could ask the chef to make us what was.
That wasn't necessary. We could have had soft shell crab with cilantro pesto or breast of duck with wild boar sausage. Or we could have taken one of the kitchen's spa alternatives such as cold sea bass with mango or broiled chicken breast with papaya. It wasn't easy to choose.
We went for the broiled breast of chicken stuffed with goat cheese and fresh herbs, and were totally happy with it. We also ordered crusted lamb loin with mint sauce and a fig relish, done to perfect pinkness. The fig relish was an inspired complement. My only complaint was that the meat tasted suspiciously like a hot version of the carpaccio.
Cielo Mare doesn't make its own desserts (the hotel opened in the spring and hasn't got around to hiring a pastry chef). You choose from a fancy cart with some store-bought cakes and tortes--apple, cheesecake, Bailey's Irish cream cake. Not very exciting.
Looking for a little excitement after dinner? Well, there's this party . . . Cielo Mare is moderately expensive. Appetizers are $6.95 to $7.95. Soups and salads are $3 to $6.25. Pastas are $16.25 to $18.50. Entrees are $16.95 to $22.95.
21100 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach
Open every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner, 6:30 a.m. through 11:30 p.m.
All major credit cards accepted