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RESTAURANTS : Pedals: Feast for the Eyes and Palate

July 29, 1994|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA MONICA — Having brunch on the terrace of Pedals, the casual seaside cafe in Shutters Hotel, one is often the subject of envy.

The cafe sits right beside the Santa Monica Strand, and not infrequently, a bicyclist or pedestrian peers in, face transfixed with longing, as if wishing he or she too were sitting among burgeoning pink geraniums under umbrellas and eating a salad of butter lettuce and fresh rock shrimp or a big plate of raisin French toast with hot berries.

Such longing is absolutely appropriate. In a beach town whose major seaside restaurants are located on traffic-clogged thoroughfares, Pedals comes as a pleasant surprise. Casual, moderately priced, with a smart, appealing California-style menu, Pedals is like a more refined Crocodile Cafe--the prices aren't that much higher, either.

Part of the pleasure of visiting here is first walking through the hotel's lovely art-filled lobby, stopping for a drink on the outdoor deck or pausing to giggle at William Wegman photographs of Weimaraner Fay Ray riding a bike and surfing on an ironing board.

*

Pedals is at beach level, or actually slightly below: sunken to where one's eyes are approximately at pedal level of passing cyclists. The dining room is bright, gleaming and noisy with a large open kitchen. Pretty wooden tables are paired with lavish postmodern wooden cafe chairs. Chandeliers hang like big face-down suns with wrought-iron rays. Wall sconces are smaller spiky suns.

Windows are wood-sashed and wide; on a warm day, they slide sideways to admit the ocean breeze. Although a window seat is preferable, from almost every table, one sees strand, sand, well-lit palm trees, bike path, surf and, depending on the hour, blue sky, sunset or starry night.

The problem--and of course, there is one--lies in the service, which can be very good on some occasions and downright terrible on others. Entrees either arrive right on top of our appetizers or an exceedingly long time after we finish them. Waiters are sweet, inexperienced and easily overwhelmed. Once, during a rush, I waited more than a half-hour to order dessert. Until the staff is stronger, I'd avoid Pedals at peak dining hours.

Ingredients are fresh and generally well-handled. The pan-fried crab cake, made with lumps of Dungeness crab, is absolutely delicious. And it should be: A single not-large patty is $8. A peppery mesclun mix is dressed with a white- miso dressing; the Caesar, made with crisp inner leaves of romaine, has unusually good croutons.

*

Soups aren't as successful: Chilled potato-and-garlic soup has a bouillon cube-like saltiness, and chicken soup with udon noodles, despite wonderful fat, slippery noodles, is lukewarm, lifeless.

Pedal's new chef is Nicholas Coe, formerly of the Brentwood branch of Mezzaluna, which leads me to believe that there's hope for the pizza. Unlike Mezzaluna's great pies, Pedal's pizzas so far wear way too much cheese on a dull crust.

Of the pastas, Singapore-style pan-fried noodles, is spicy--good but tricked up with too many slivered vegetables.

A rotisserie half-chicken, golden brown, plump and juicy, comes with mashed potatoes laced with pureed roast garlic and terrific grilled asparagus. Perfect French fries and a green salad accompany a cloud-light piece of Chilean sea bass, but the plate is so hot it wilts the salad. Marinated sirloin steak is a bit overcooked--still, it comes with great, garlicky Argentine chimichurri sauce and a side of black beans.

Desserts are straightforward, large and delicious, and should be enjoyed with the excellent house coffee or one of a wide selection of good teas. The dessert called fruit band is puff pastry, pastry cream and fresh berries; cheesecake a pure white wedge of richness in a pool of warm berries. Ben and Jerry ice creams come with an optional waffle cone.

* Pedals, 1 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 458-0030. Breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days. Sunday brunch. Full bar. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $26-$60.

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