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Seaside Dining Lures Charlie's Grill Patrons

March 05, 1992|DAVID NELSON | David Nelson regularly reviews restaurants for The Times in San Diego. His column also appears in Calendar on Fridays.

A lot of surf has broken against the riprap since Charlie's Grill opened in the most prime of beach locations in Cardiff.

The waves have dissolved in harmless foam, mostly--the riprap, a barricade of boulders, was dumped in front of the restaurant's broad windows for just that purpose--but the cooking has improved considerably over the years.

The menu retains the unique tone of Southern California beach eateries: a blend of prime rib and steaks, "popular" recipes for things like blackened fish that are rather past their prime, and towering, commendably indulgent desserts.

Another constant is the sassy-efficient style of service taken as a given at such establishments; food and drink arrive efficiently and on schedule, with no back-talk tolerated by servers who regard themselves as pros and seem truly to like their work.

The fact that they don't always know what they're talking about when they outline a dish matters not a whit, since menu descriptions are fairly complete and the kitchen, in any case, is going to send what it is going to send.

As overused as the word may be, eclectic suits the menu well, since it represents a compendium of contemporary styles and longtime favorites tossed together on a list that Charlie's prints daily.

There are unusual, homey touches to the menu, including a sports score or two from the previous evening, a timetable for the sunset and high tide, birthday greetings issued to celebrities and a note from the chef indicating a daily special that he particularly (sincerely or not, how can you tell?) recommends.

The decor, casual and beachy but rather pretty and certainly comfortable, has almost visceral attractions--we all like to eat by the water once in a while, and it is hard to get much closer than at a table in Charlie's front room.

If the menu maintains allegiance to the surf 'n' turf foundations of SoCal beach cuisine--via prime rib and Australian lobster, which are not, however, served in tandem--it also addresses modern tastes by offering pastas in both the appetizer and entree categories.

The starter of "oregano spaghetti" (tossed with slices of strong andouille sausage, tender rock shrimp and a fairly mild sauce of roasted red bell peppers flavored moderately with oregano) is tasty and filling, as long as you like andouille, a garlicky New Orleans sausage of French origin that very much dominates the dish.

The entree of black pepper-flavored angel hair with scallops, Dungeness crab, shiitake mushrooms and a dill-mustard sauce is much less successful; the scallops and mushrooms (the latter hacked to bits, and rubbery) are there in plenitude, but both crab and sauce make themselves scarce. This stuff was pretty dull.

Other starters range from the simplicity of blue point oysters on the shell to broiled, prosciutto-wrapped shrimp, a highly herbed but rather flat black bean soup and a creamed clam chowder of unusual, exceptional flavor that may be one of the two or three best in the county.

Salad choices include Caesar and an unusual toss of hearts of palm and hazelnuts. The huge plate of onion strings--fried wisps, which make the fingers greasy and are utterly delicious--is offered as a side dish but makes a perfect shared snack, which presumably is the guise in which most diners approach it.

Although the menu changes daily, most items repeat. It is the fish of the day that change, and there are some interesting, somewhat retro-California Cuisine choices here, notably a slab of salmon breaded with crushed almonds, sauteed until golden and dabbed rather parsimoniously with a light, tasty sauce of sour cream mixed with slivered lime peel and a bit of mango. This was an impressive offering.

Other seafood choices recently have been a mixed grill of ahi, grilled shrimp and prosciutto-wrapped scallops in papaya-flavored beurre blanc , and "Cajun blackened" sea bass, a little too retro for informed contemporary tastes.

Prime rib has been such a standard offering for so long that it easily could be ignored, except that Charlie's specifies meat smoked over oak rather than roasted in the oven.

The idea, if simple, is also grand, and the meat has an absolutely magnificent flavor, vastly superior to that of the dull, gray roasts served elsewhere. Other meat choices include a grilled New York pepper steak with a Jack Daniels sauce, and barbecued baby pork ribs, also smoked over oak. On the inexpensive side, the house cheeseburger weighs in at $6.95 for a hefty half-pound.

The hula pie, a decadent, sky-rising confection of chocolate crust, macadamia ice cream and caramel topping is unregenerate but quite appropriate after virtually any of the entrees.

Charlie's Grill

2526 S. Highway 101, Cardiff-by-the-Sea Calls: 942-1300

Hours: Dinner daily

Cost: Entrees $10.95 to $17.95; dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $40 to $75.

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