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SHALLOW WATERS : Good Intentions and Fresh Ingredients Pave the Way to Ambivalent Dining

March 06, 1994|S. Irene Virbila

If there's one thing all great cooks seem to have in common these days, it's the belief that the very best cooking is based on first-rate ingredients. This is something California's gastronomic gurus have been preaching for years. And it does hold true--as far as the kitchen door. At Clearwater Cafe, a new environmentally sensitive restaurant in Pasadena's Old Town, the raw materials are among the best in the land, which makes what comes out of the kitchen a little baffling.

A blackboard out front lists the provenance of ingredients procured for that day's menu. It includes Pacific sweetwater oysters and Manila clams from Hog Island Oysters Farms in Tomales Bay, organic rice from Lundberg Family Farms and fresh-cut lettuces and herbs from Kenter Canyon Farms, all of which you can read about in the restaurant's newsletter. Most of the produce is organic and comes from small California farms that practice sustainable agriculture. Fish is purchased whole, from local purveyors whenever possible, and does not include fish caught in gill nets in the ocean or threatened species such as shark. And if anyone wants to know more, a three-ring binder at the front desk bursts at the seams with a detailed nutritional analysis of each dish on the menu.

Clearwater is basically a hip natural-foods restaurant with enough choices on the menu so that strict vegans, vegetarians, people on low-fat diets and vegetable and seafood lovers can all sit down together in a setting that looks like a million bucks--which is exactly what Jeff and Sam King of University Restaurant Group, which also owns the Water Grill downtown, spent on it. The budget shows in fine details like the whimsical copper lamps and the beautifully crafted booths and tables. Metal cut-out fish dart in and out of the copper-ribboned sea that runs along the staircase.

The gardener in me relishes the produce displayed like so many treasures from near and far. Inside the door is a flat of closely packed sunflower sprouts so green, it's as if you're seeing the color for the first time. Wooden crates spill golden citrus and fragrant melons. Exotic bananas and baskets of sweet dumpling squash are piled outside the kitchen.

It's pleasant to sit at the long wood-and-zinc bar sipping a glass of Bosc pear juice or the Day-Glo orange eight-vegetable drink. You can also order a shot of wheat grass, plain or spiked with garlic or ginger, as an aperitif. "We all take a shot when we start our shifts," confesses the bartender. The taste? Like drinking a lawn.

But you know a kitchen is in trouble when the best dishes are those that require little cooking skill. At Clearwater, that means superb oysters on the half shell served with grated fresh horseradish or the steamed Hog Island clams or Prince Edward Island mussels with white wine and garlic. You can't go wrong with salads like the mixed sprout salad with a nice toasted sesame dressing or the medley of springy seaweeds. For a main course, choose the simply steamed Maine lobster with drawn butter, fresh corn and boiled potatoes. Beware the more complicated dishes.

Soups come by the cup, pint or quart, but who could get through a pint of the insipid 15-vegetables-and-bean soup? The quart of cioppino doesn't stint on the seafood, but its broth is so full of chunks of tomato it could easily stand in for a pasta sauce. The retro-garlic bread with it is soaked in oil. The chowder, happily crowded with plump meaty clams and potatoes, leans the other way: The taste of the broth is faint. That's just for starters.

It doesn't take a highly trained chef to make a decent crab Louie salad. This Louie looks as if it was cut up by someone wielding a knife for the first time. And could someone please explain the logic of dressing it with "eggless" Thousand Island dressing when the salad includes hard-boiled egg? You can hardly find the extra-virgin olive oil on the sliced Southern California citrus salad of pomelos, tangerines and blood oranges. Chilean sea bass (called Patagonian toothfish here) with delicious red chard arrives perfectly cooked, but the wine sauce has been reduced to the consistency of crude oil. And pecan-coated catfish has been burned in places; even worse, the coating has a moldy taste.

On two occasions the crisp, ungreasy fries are so loaded with salt, no one at my table can eat them. (Our earnest young waiter did offer to replace them.) Same problem with the corn-studded creamy polenta that accompanies the grilled Coronado yellowtail and earthy sauteed spinach one night. The organic-brown-rice risotto, laden with calamari, sweet corn and asparagus, has a wonderful texture and crunch, but goes uneaten. The fault? An overdose of salt.

Despite the appealing menu descriptions, the desserts seem straight out of the Dark Ages of hippie baking. Every one I sample is cloyingly sweet and served in enormous portions. When the young manager inquires if it's our first time at Clearwater, he coyly admonishes us, "You know, you can't leave until you finish the desserts!" This was asking the impossible.

As we leave, I happen to overhear one woman lament to another: "I'm so disappointed. I'm a vegetarian. Why can't they cook food that we like?" That is exactly the question. And the reason the two are soon exchanging addresses of other vegetarian and health food restaurants.

Clearwater Cafe, 168 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena; (818) 356 - 0959. Open daily for lunch and dinner , breakfast on weekends. Full bar. Valet parking free with validation. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $25-$58.

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