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RESTAURANT REVIEW : El Encanto's Luxury Can't Disguise Food That's Lackluster : But careful choices such as fire-roasted pepper soup, monkfish and fresh linguine do justice to the elegant setting.

August 11, 1994|LEONARD REED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

El Encanto Hotel is one of the jewels of Santa Barbara.

Small white guest cottages amid clotted purple vines and broad green banana leaves surround a hilltop manse overlooking the city and the ocean. The setting and the view, for decades the lure of the wealthy and powerful as well as a tweedy, rumpled brand of local, certainly do enchant.

Dining happens in the main house in one large room, elegantly set and made spacious with windows dominated by the city and ocean below or stands of ancient green trees; and on a large veranda, canopied from sun but sufficiently al fresco and angled to the view as to feel Mediterranean. Indeed, it is so transporting up here that it may as well be the Amalfi Coast.

If only the food could consistently produce such magic.

Sometimes it does, and that is the good news. A perfect mixed greens salad, dressed so lightly and fragrantly as to defy its own weight in olive oil, or a sauteed fillet of monkfish, scented so softly but deeply with garlic and parsley as to thoroughly ennoble something once known as "poor man's lobster," testify to an expert, imaginative hand in the kitchen.

But overcooked lamb loin that has mealy texture and metallic flavor? Or roasted squab that suffers the same stale fate? That is the bad news, especially when the tab for two, with a humble bottle of Chardonnay, tops $100. Somehow, on these bad nights, the view really does change.

Choose carefully. Among appetizers, the chilled fire roasted red pepper soup ($5.50) is a dream: thick puree of sweetly fragrant peppers is topped with slices of faintly smoky grilled eggplant and chunks of Roma tomatoes. The result is bracing, refreshing, a delight to the eye as well as palate, altogether original. The mixed greens salad ($6.50) is not only the model of restraint, it is distinctive for the incorporation of pear and balsamic hints in an ultra light vinaigrette.

Caesar salad ($6.75) is a sure bet, for its pungent and goop-proof dressing, bona fide Reggiano Parmesan cheese, and anchovy fillets. And the smoked free-range chicken salad ($9), in which organically grown field greens from Carpinteria are tossed with avocado, pine nuts and sherry vinaigrette and placed atop slices of smoky chicken breast, is first-rate.

But the spirit falls with bruschetta of Maine lobster ($8.75): a standard-issue tomato/basil/garlic compote topped with bits of somewhat over-the-hill lobster meat (and not enough of them at that). Soft shell crab salad ($9.50) sparkles in fresh watercress tossed in lemon caper vinaigrette but fades under the weight of a perfectly fresh whole crab that is burdened by too much frying fat.

Fresh egg linguine with sauteed porcini and morels ($18.25) is wonderful, redolent of the damp forest floor and lent edge by addition of asparagus tips and a heady whiff of grated black truffle. If there is one time to make peace with a rich cream-based sauce, this is the dish.

But paella with blue prawns ($23.75) challenges. Firm rice, risotto-like in texture, arrives as prop to the arresting presentation of prawns, sea scallops, mussels, chicken and sausage. Yes, the dish sounds rustic, forward, in the tradition of great paellas . But instead it is elusive, overwrought: an under-flavored, uptown rendering of a farm dish whose individual flavors must meld as well as curtsy so politely.

The monkfish ($19.75) may well be where the kitchen's ambition comes together for greatest effect. It arrives sliced in round pieces, arrayed in a circle not unlike maki, surrounding a julienne of vegetables with roasted garlic, parsley and lemon butter. The fish is firm, ever-so-slightly undercooked to preserve sweetness and texture, and combines perfectly with the delicate accompaniments. The result is singular, original, transcendent.

Certain of the meats did not fare as well. Lamb loin ($25.25), carved generously from the rack, arrived overcooked and with distinct texture and flavor problems--it went largely uneaten. The roasted squab ($24.50), promisingly set in Pinot Noir sauce, carried stale, overly gamy notes in the flavor and some toughness as well.

But grilled tenderloin of beef ($25.50) succeeded splendidly. And how could it not? The meat was fresh, expertly cut, deeply flavorsome, perfectly cooked to order, framed in flavor by a dense, focused port wine sauce and then nearly outdone by the opulence of an accompanying shiitake and oyster mushroom saute, roasted garlic and shoestring potatoes.

Desserts (all $4.75) are uniformly excellent: berry tarts bursting with lemon edge and flaky crusts to El Encanto's sentimental favorite, the Floating Island. In that dish, a giant poached meringue dollop, topped with almond shavings and caramel droplets, is set adrift in creme Anglaise for one long, decadent "sail."

El Encanto's wine list is moderate in size and extremely well-selected. Although it's no bargain sheet, some values do emerge, among them the wide-beamed, bright, always satisfying Fess Parker '92 Chardonnay at $24.

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