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Pacifica Del Mar Menu Enlivened by New Chef

February 06, 1992|DAVID NELSON | David Nelson regularly reviews restaurants for The Times in San Diego. His column also appears in Calendar on Fridays.

H. H. Munro's much-quoted and inimitable phrase, "She was a good cook, as cooks go, and as good cooks go, she went," remains endlessly useful whenever the conversation turns to notable restaurants.

Restaurants remain with us, at least when operated by restaurateurs who have a decent grasp of the exigencies of the business, but cooks--or chefs, as we tend to say these days, sometimes bestowing the honor on heads unworthy of the toque--have the the habit of departing for more verdant hillsides on extremely brief notice. When this happens, those establishments too closely identified with the person behind the range can face a crisis, whereas restaurants operated by proprietors who set firm standards of their own--who set a style and tone not subject to the tastes of the chef--are likely to adjust to the change with relative ease.

Neil Stuart, long executive chef for the small, local Pacifica chain (operators of Pacifica Del Mar, Cafe Pacifica in Old Town and downtown San Diego's Pacifica Grill) left the chain last fall to purchase Pacifica Grill. That deal collapsed at the least moment and Stuart departed the scene entirely, which might have had an ill effect upon the Pacifica establishments, including the stylish, ultra-contemporary eatery in Del Mar Plaza. However, since the management shares Stuart's taste for solidly imaginative menus built on various combinations of Californian, Asian and Southwestern themes, the revised menu recently installed by new Pacifica Del Mar chef Scot Kirkwood remains agreeably familiar while offering a number of innovative items.

Kirkwood, a graduate of such high-profile places as Michael's in Santa Monica and the Rose Cafe in Venice, has added a number of items that take the menu in new directions--toward Asia-inspired spiciness in the case of several appetizers, and toward "lightness" with several principal dishes.

New starters include crab-stuffed spring rolls with gingered cream sauce and a decoration of "flames" elaborated from red bell pepper. To the tongue, the flames grow nearer reality with the "chili" oysters, finished with a sauce of roasted chilies, and with the fried calamari in a chili-heated yogurt sauce that also is seasoned with mint; in Nineties cooking, an inoculation of chili-heat can make almost anything hip, even the traditional minted yogurt of Middle Eastern cookery upon which this sauce is based.

Among appetizers retained from the old menu is the vegetable cream soup of the month, most recently an asparagus version that got much of its creamy effect from vegetable puree and had an added, fine flavor from some mystery seasoning. The Malaysian beef and shrimp dumplings better the dumplings served at some Chinese restaurants; the shrimp is hard to notice, but there is a definite bite to the beef, and the mahogany-dark, soy-based dip is excellent. There also are salmon cured in lemon-flavored vodka and mussels steamed in herbed Japanese beer.

Among salads, the combination of greens, seared but virtually raw ahi and ginger-soy vinaigrette remains, supplemented by the addition of a light plate of marinated vegetables--listed as grown at the noted Chino's truck farm in Rancho Santa Fe--arranged over assorted lettuces. A new pasta category includes a basic angel hair with tomatoes and basil, made unusual by the addition of Sherry vinegar, and Chino's vegetables in an unusual combination with stir-fried noodles and a goat cheese-lemon-basil sauce. The same stir-fired noodles, this time lightly dressed with a moderately hot lemon-chili sauce, also support a cargo of succulent, grilled sea scallops; with a few pea pods and other veggies thrown in, this makes a happy plate.

Kirkwood supplements the monthly menu with daily specials, recently a grilled chicken breast stuffed with goat cheese--the effect was creamy but light--given a complicated garnish of tomatoed vinaigrette, sauteed peppers and onions, sliced shiitake mushrooms and mashed yams. Somehow, this seemed like old-fashioned American meat-and-potatoes reinvented for contemporary tastes. New additions to the standing menu include rack of lamb with a Pinot Noir-blackberry sauce and sauteed pork chops with applesauce, Calvados cream sauce and mashed potatoes. Seafood dominates the entree list, and choices include the "sugar-spiced" barbecued king salmon, grilled swordfish with Japanese-style vinaigrette and grilled sea bass with a salsa of avocado, cucumber and tomato.

The dessert list takes a more rich, traditional point of view and runs to a fine tarte Tatin (upside-down apple pie), an elaborate chocolate mousse cake gilded with fresh berries and the "Del Mar trifecta," an extravagant ice cream pie piled in a macaroon crust.

Pacifica Del Mar

1555 Camino Del Mar (Del Mar Plaza)

Calls: 792-0476

Hours: Lunch weekdays, dinner nightly

Cost: Pastas and entrees $9.50 to $21.40; dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $35 to $75.

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