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DAVID NELSON / ON RESTAURANTS

More Than a Pretty Southwestern Face

August 29, 1991|DAVID NELSON | David Nelson regularly reviews restaurants for The Times in San Diego. His column also appears in Calendar on Fridays.

Crossing the parking lot to the entrance of the new Coyote Bar & Grill in Carlsbad's Village Faire center involves an act of faith that calm waits behind the door, since the band playing to the assembled twentysomethings on the outdoor terrace rocks loudly enough to rattle the stars.

The dining room is peaceful, in fact--at least if you choose a table at a distance from the lively bar.

The fad for all things Southwestern passed through the country's metropolises several years ago and now has been revived rather attractively at this establishment, which emphasizes its nouvelle- Southwestern menu with a Santa Fe decor of light woods; beamed, whitewashed ceilings; turquoise trim; a domed, New Mexico-style fireplace (the gas flames burn even in August), and an outdoor cactus garden. Gerbera daisies recently bowed their colorful heads on the tables. When it comes to looks, this place is definitely a winner.

It does pretty well in the cooking department, too, although, based on a recent meal, the kitchen performs better with starter courses than with entrees.

Many of the dishes sparkle with imagination, notably the appetizer of juicy, charred scallops arranged over a grilled slice of the house cornbread. The charring, handled adroitly, resulted in exceptionally succulent scallops, perfect with both the bread--crusty and sweet, but also hot with minced red and green chilies--and with the breathy, cilantro-based pesto puddled on one side of the plate.

Also good, if more typical, is the quesadilla stuffed with a mixture of four cheeses; the effect, even with mild salsa cruda and sour cream on the side, is of a rather delicate, sedate pizza. Chips and a smoked salsa arrive at the beginning of the meal as nibbles and suit that purpose, although there is nothing exceptional about the offering. Coyote Bar & Grill by no means shuns spicy-hot food, but both the smoked and raw salsas, which might be expected to be hot, are notably timid.

Other starter choices include grilled corn on the cob (when available) smeared with ancho chili butter; marinated, cheese-stuffed jalapenos, dipped in beer batter and fried, which seem perhaps most useful for making bets at the bar (jalapenos can be hot ), and miniature tacos filled with smoked chicken or grilled sirloin strips.

The black bean-steak chili, again garnished with grilled sirloin strips, can easily suit the purposes of a meal. Liberally spiced and quite bursting with flavor, it's good, although the thickness suggests more bean stew than chili. (Unless you know you have the capacity to eat fire, do not bite into the red and red-hot fresh chili pepper that garnishes the plate--let the voice of experience be your guide in this matter.)

A smoother, more elegant brew is the chowder of roasted corn and minced chilies, swirled for effect with a bit of red pepper cream; the flavor is excellent, deep and rich, right to the bottom of the bowl. The simple house dinner salad, typical in its choice of greenery, is distinguished by a selection of homemade dressings that include a pungent cilantro sauce and another based on Chardonnay.

The entrees generally were less satisfactory than the starters. The selection includes swordfish tacos, a 24-ounce Porterhouse steak, lobster fajitas, carnitas, a pasta of the day, and a skewer of prawns and scallops. The "Sonora steak," which the menu describes as " fajitas -style," was a sometimes tasty, sometimes tough aggregation of charred beef strips piled over browned onions and peppers. Black beans, chili pepper-spiked hominy (parched, puffed corn, an Indian specialty), salsa, guacamole and sour cream garnished this and other entree plates.

The Yucatan shrimp were better, the large, shelled prawns brightly seasoned and grilled just long enough to be cooked but still juicy. A guest who insisted on ordering the fish of the day was rewarded with beer-batter-fried shark filets, which not only were poorly done but were so outside the tone of the menu that they really should not have been offered.

The back of the menu devotes enormous space to a selection of house Margaritas and to a more-than-impressive list of 64 tequilas. For all the sound and fury, however, the Margaritas sampled tasted sweet and flat rather than puckery and tart, the notes really desired in this beverage.

The service, as so frequently happens, was cheerful, friendly and abysmal. The servers did not understand such points as completely clearing the table or checking that the required silver was in place. Training is the responsibility of the management; workers cannot be expected to know what they have not been taught.

Coyote Bar & Grill

300 Carlsbad Village Drive, Village Faire center, Carlsbad

Calls: 729-4695

Hours: Lunch and dinner daily

Cost: Entrees $6.95 to $18.95; dinner for two, including a Margarita each, tax and tip, $25 to $65.

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