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DAVID NELSON / ON RESTAURANTS

Raintree Showers Taste Onto a Bargain Menu

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

It is perhaps a touch unexpected to be greeted at a restaurant's entrance with the news that there will be a short wait for a table because the servers are momentarily "stressed," but this happened one recent evening at Carlsbad's Raintree Bar & Grill.

The wait, in any case, was brief, and was concluded by provision with both a good table and a notably enthusiastic server. This restaurant, attached to a motor inn of the same name, is unusual in that it steers a middle course but seems to take particular pains with much of the cooking. In many cases--but not all--the dishes are bargain-priced and worth every penny.

There is an unusual energy to the place, at least on weekends, that seems provided by several sources. The most obvious would be the musicians who occupy a small stage on one side of the room and croon, in reasonably low-key voices, a mixture of old standards, Beatles classics and more contemporary top hits.

But there are also busy pasta and oyster bars, which have daily menus chalked on blackboards and will send their offerings over to the tables on request--the standing menu given guests makes but passing mention of the possibilities. (And no mention at all of the selection of hard-to-find regional beers, which may or may not be good but carry such delightfully improbable names as Cajun Voodoo Blackened Lager.) The cooks at these bars are by no means afraid of garlic, and the odor almost literally thickens the atmosphere.

A few of the appetizers, which are expensive relative to the entrees, are prepared at the oyster bar. Choices include clams steamed in a sherried garlic broth, plain oysters on the half shell or a fancier Rockefeller version that substitutes white sauce for the traditional hollandaise, and a shrimp "cocktail" that goes its own way, if happily so. Unlike the typical cocktails that pair chilled shrimp with a spicy red sauce, this one poaches the critters in a balsamic vinegar-flavored broth and serves them warm, with some of the broth--there seems a faint anise flavor to it--offered as dip.

Raintree also offers an appetizer of "bruschetta," or grilled, garnished bread, which currently is a popular snack at restaurants around the county and certainly is not hard to make. This one failed, partly from over-grilling, but mostly from the harsh, shaken-from-the-can cheese that blanketed the mixture of chopped fresh tomatoes and basil spooned over the bread. Nothing ever tastes better than the ingredients that enter into its preparation.

A large display window allows guests to watch the work progressing in the kitchen, and a great deal of what they see is the repeated assembling of the "steak board" entree. Many of these issue from the kitchen, and not surprisingly, since this is an attractive serving and a definite bargain at $9.50.

The board is exactly that (a plate would serve as well but would lack the drama of this wooden slab), covered in the center with shredded red cabbage and then piled high with slices of perfectly cooked top sirloin. A heap of hot, crisp shoestrings are mounded alongside just as the platter departs the kitchen, and as simple as this presentation may sound, it's a very nice way to enjoy a good steak.

A few other items take a similarly easygoing approach--there is prime rib, grilled chicken breast and a prosciutto-and-shrimp garnished dish of fettuccine--but the menu grows more ambitious at times, particularly with the daily specials.

This ambition may be for better (the tortilla-breaded catfish with herbs, peppers and onions sounds like it has possibilities) or for worse, as in the case of the "beef stir-fry with a mango sauce." Whatever "a" mango sauce may be was hard to discover, because nary a trace of this fruit flavored the unremarkable mix of shredded meat and Chinese-style vegetables.

The menu also offers a couple of pizzas, several basic sandwiches and such entree-sized plates of greens as Cobb salad and Caesar salad garnished with grilled chicken.

The kitchen redeems such slips as it makes with the "cactus mud pie," a colorful creation that goes the usual version one better by including a fat layer of chocolate mint ice cream. Paved with whipped cream and cross-hatched with chocolate sauce, the giant wedge is finished with a sprinkle of chopped peanuts, whose saltiness unexpectedly sharpens the flavors of this rich, excellent dessert.

Raintree Grill & Bar

755 Raintree Drive (near the intersection of Avenida Encinas and Poinsettia Lane), Carlsbad

Calls: 931-1122

Hours: Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily

Cost: Sandwiches and entrees $5.95 to $13.95; dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $20 to $60.

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