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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Select the Old Guard Favorites at the Changing Pierpont Inn : In trying to dazzle, the kitchen reaches beyond the fresh and inventive and into a perilous idiosyncrasy.

November 10, 1994|LEONARD REED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For years, the Pierpont Inn restaurant, gracious and genteel and the Room With a View, has drawn a loyal following. Today, that following has become a beloved Old Guard--aging and slightly dwindling in number, perhaps, but fiercely a part of the Pierpont's extended family.

That's the grace and curse of the place, truth be told. For the restaurant is trying to change and attract a new customer base while keeping the faithful happy and unjostled. A new chef has come on board to energize things. And his stylish menu is joined by a deep, well-selected wine list.

But in trying to dazzle and impress everyone--both loyalist and newcomer alike--the kitchen reaches beyond the fresh and inventive and into a perilous idiosyncrasy in which many dishes are strangely overwrought. The result is that the Pierpont--a place with a venerable past and an aim-to-please future--is stuck in a confusing present.

It is an unhappy deed to file this report. Few places receive guests with the warmth and grace of the Pierpont staff. Few places offer such a beautiful setting overlooking the Pacific. Indeed, few places sustain the level of unpretentious comfort that you'll encounter here, whether stopping by for a sunset cocktail or settling in for a long, special-occasion repast.

But stick to the simplest menu choices, and don't be shy about insisting on a basic preparation. The kitchen staff handles food capably and, if it is reined in a bit, you will enjoy a better meal.

The unequivocal hit among appetizers are the salmon cakes ($7.95), meaty, lightly spiced and succulent; they're grilled simply and served with a bit of fragrant bruschetta. The chicken quesadillas ($5.50), in which chicken, cheese and pica de gallo are tucked within tortillas, are outsize and heavy, though fresh. Fried calamari ($6.50) are lightly battered and properly cooked for tenderness.

Mushrooms au gratin ($7.95), in which large caps are stuffed with Dungeness crab and bay shrimp and topped with jack cheese, are standard issue. Not so the Inn-style grilled prawns ($7.95), plump and tender and charbroiled with a light mustard vinaigrette.

None of these dishes is accompanied by an Italian, sourdough or French-style bread, however, and each would be aided by it. Instead, the Pierpont serves, with some fanfare, crispy slices of cheese-toasted pumpernickel with hummus , followed by a dark multi-grain bread pungent as the wet forest floor. All the breads here have their specific joys. But they fail at accompanying other foods, least of all those bathed in herb-infused, tomato-based sauces.

The Caesar salad ($4.95, half) veers toward the heavy, so go with the tossed garden salad drizzled in a lovely lemon-edged vinaigrette ($3.95, half). The best pasta is penne with grilled prawns ($14.95), although be warned that the dish is huge and heavy: penne rigati tossed in tomato-basil vodka cream and topped with prawns grilled with mustard vinaigrette.

Angel hair con pomodoro ($10.95), perhaps the most basic and classic of pasta dishes in which tomato, basil and garlic join olive oil on fine noodles, is overcooked and lacking punch.

Entrees are all over the lot. A fish special advertised as salmon fillet in light honey mustard glaze ($18.95) is actually salmon fillet beneath a thick amber mantle of mustard-heavy goo. The sauce scraped away, the fish is fine.

Most disappointing of all was a weeknight special of bouillabaisse ($18.95). The Pierpont's version of this classic seafood stew boasts perhaps a generous pound of fish and shellfish in a broth so bland as to be confused with plain old tomato juice. There is no lobster; there is no side helping of hot sauce with which to enliven the brew; alas, there is no bread, as noted, suitable for the dipping.

Scalone ($16.95), described simply as "scallops and abalone in lemon butter," is so much more--unfortunately. A thin pad of ground scallops and abalone is breaded, fried, and presented beneath a thick mantle of emulsified lemon butter and topped with toasted nuts.

Confusing matters further is the adjacent pile of fresh sauteed vegetables adrift in mushroom cream sauce. The pairing of these sauces makes for warring factions.

Choose instead one of the Old Guard favorites. Rack of lamb ($22.95) is an embarrassingly huge portion--it is unclear what profit the house can take in generously dishing out so many chops--and it is roasted expertly to order, served with Cabernet sauce. The result is deeply satisfying, both rustic and elegant.

Hazelnut chicken ($14.95) appears to have its fans, and to them I'll nod in incomprehension and defer. But do note what it is: a breast of chicken sealed in bread crumbs, paved over in hazelnuts, then set upon a moat of sherry-mustard cream sauce. Two bites, and you've eaten for the week, although you won't especially know it was chicken that did it.

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