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RESTAURANT REVIEW / ACACIA : Slice of Americana : Acacia excels at fresh interpretations of such traditional dishes as matzo ball soup, warm spinach salad and roasted chicken.

March 11, 1993|HILARY DOLE KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For years Stephen Singleton cooked in other people's kitchens. Every night he served a meal in a different setting, switching from tents to lawns, from pool houses to dining rooms, from the art museum to the zoo. He made hors d'oeuvres for 500 one night and dinner for six the next. He learned to carry on when fuses blew, when ovens refused to heat and when there were more guests than food. After years as a busy, successful caterer, he is probably one of the few people for whom opening a restaurant was a piece of cake.

Acacia, newly opened on Montecito's Coast Village Road, serves the kind of food that tugs at America's heartstrings. If you didn't grow up with a grandmother who made matzo ball soup or one who prided herself on her buttermilk fried chicken with mashed potatoes, after eating at Acacia, you may wish you had.

But whose grandmother served toasted bagels with creme fraiche? Or put scrambled eggs on a bed of grilled pasta? What we have here are some of the surprises and novelties we have come to expect from California cuisine, along with a comfortable, nostalgic sense of food from back home.

Because this is such an American menu, Acacia couldn't rely on the musicality of foreign-sounding dishes to lend a taste of the exotic. So Acacia has come up with its own version of food poetry. You'll find dishes on the "winter weekend" menu like "China camp eggs with Inner Beauty sauce" or "red flannel lamb hash." Red flannel in this case is named for the bright red infusion of chopped beets in a tasty hash of tiny chunked potatoes and shredded lamb, topped with firmly poached eggs.

China camp eggs turned out to be a weird and wonderful dish of scrambled eggs on a bed of grilled vermicelli, both crisp and slithery, accompanied by leaves of baby spinach that also tasted grilled. They came with creme fraiche on top and Inner Beauty sauce on the side. The sauce turned out to be a commercial hot sauce, made in Costa Rica from Scotch bonnets chili peppers. The label advises "keep away from open flame, children and bad advice." While not searingly hot, it still brought a pleasant flush to the face.

Eggs Benedict came with a bright yellow lemony Hollandaise and the welcome addition of thick slices of buttery cured salmon and ripe tomatoes. It was the kind of dish that makes Acacia the perfect destination for a drive up the coast for brunch.

At brunch or any other meal, a huge bowl of matzo ball soup is a real winner. It came with extraordinarily sweet diced carrots and celery, plenty of chicken and a lovely, fine-textured matzo. The Acacia burger was also larger than life, grilled to order with superb Cheddar cheese and rosemary onions, slightly marinated.

Onions may be the signature food at Acacia. For starters, little dishes of them appear on the table instead of butter, along with country style bread. These delectable onions have been stewed in olive oil and balsamic vinegar until they are as dark and slithery as eels. They also make a marvelous appetizer consisting of a heaping plate of fried onion rings with a subtle lemon pepper flavoring. Shallot marmalade was another fabulous onion concoction. Sweet and tangy, it went perfectly with a grilled chicken liver appetizer--tender tasty livers on toast, embellished by zesty sprigs of cilantro.

We tried a fine appetizer consisting of blini-thin pancakes covered with dollops of sour cream and caviar and bordered by strips of sublime home-cured sturgeon that resembled ghostly pale gravlax. Also pleasing was a warm spinach salad with terrific roasted red peppers, moist dark pieces of duck and corn croutons that tasted just like Corn Nuts.

Lemon-infused chicken was a marvelous roasted chicken, surrounded by a bevy of root vegetables--russet potatoes, turnips and carrots--and mushrooms. If this gets you in the mood for fine Americana, you can continue in this vein by ordering the butterscotch pudding, as smooth as silk and innocent as childhood. It came, of course, with snickerdoodle cookies.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Acacia, 1212 Coast Village Road, Montecito, 969-8500. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, breakfast and lunch 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Full bar, Visa, MasterCard, American Express. Dinner for two, food only $26 to $60.

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