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In This Dreamy Roadside Setting, the Grill Is King

September 05, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

DANA POINT — If you renovate it, they will come.

Salt Creek Grille is easily the handsomest new restaurant on this stretch of Pacific Coast Highway, and don't think people haven't noticed. This all-American grill has had standing room only since Day One. Throngs of well-dressed locals crowd the spiffy bar and antique porch waiting for tables.

The entire restaurant, once a rather staid place called Crown House, has been redesigned in the turn-of-the-century California Craftsman style. The new owners spent $1.5 million on the renovation, and the interior now has inlaid wood paneling and stunning designer-fabric booths. There are lots of panoramic windows and an enormous mesquite grill visible behind a wall of glass.

At the dark wood bar, the walls display photos of Laguna as it was 50 and 75 years ago. Outside, on a sprawling patio perilously close to noisy Pacific Coast Highway, you dine under heat lamps and moss-green umbrellas, traffic whizzing by just below your table.

It probably isn't just the visuals that are bringing so many people in. The appealing menu, chiefly mesquite-grilled meat and fish with a few surprises, was put together by chef Peter Striffolino of nearby Dana Point Resort. We're talking serious mesquite use here. The restaurant grills over split mesquite logs exclusively, creating a perfume you'll sense all the way out in the parking lot.

Another reason people are flocking here is probably the outlandish portions. Several of the entrees could easily be split for two, although it doesn't seem to occur to the diners.

I'm guessing this is also why there aren't many appetizers. Even some of them are huge; the smoked shrimp guacamole would serve four. This is a huge platter of red tortilla chips with a bowl of shrimp-topped guacamole in the center. What makes it good is the guacamole's freshness, which plays off the sweet wood-smoke flavor of the shrimp.

Tomato basil bisque is a mildly creamy soup, thick enough to stand a spoon in. Tumbleweed onion rings--a big, greasy brick of them, Tony Roma-style--come with a good celery-seed dip that would make a killer salad dressing. It's so good it almost makes the onion rings work.

The best entrees come from the mesquite grill, and heading the list is a superb rib steak. One of my friends ordered it rare and looked dismayed when it came to the table with the outside charred to blackness. "This is not rare," he grumbled, until he cut in, exposing a beautiful blood-red interior. It had a great steak flavor too.

It helps if you like the aroma of mesquite and don't mind that mesquite burns quite hot, potentially drying the meat. Fortunately for the New York strip pepper steak, it comes in a fairly wet sauce of cognac, cracked pepper, capers and shallots, so the meat doesn't seem as dry as it might be on its own.

The mesquite-grilled half-chicken with a citrus ginger marinade--which must come from a bionic chicken, it's so big--is just a huge plate of charred meat. The baby back ribs, a full rack of totally tender meat, are basted with a sugary but tangy barbecue sauce--which, by the time the ribs are cooked, is reduced almost to a dry paste.

I happen to love the taste of mesquite with fish, even though fish is notoriously likely to dry out in grilling. Salt Creek Grille's grilled loin of swordfish, a nice-sized slab with a wonderful flavor, comes with chive caper butter to moisten it. The Alaska salmon filet, though, is served over a soggy salad of chopped Roma tomatoes dressed with a tarragon sauce; not such a good idea.

The side dishes--two to an entree--are top-notch. The best is undoubtedly the Kentucky pole beans: fat, firm string beans, boiled al dente and moistened with a little melted butter. That lumpy pile over there is the tasty mashed red-skin garlic potatoes. Salt Creek Grille's French fries are long and skinny, nicely crisp, cooked to a pale straw yellow.

The baked potatoes look small in this context, but you can have them with the works--sour cream, butter, chives, real bacon bits and melted cheese. Salt Creek makes a rather austere version of creamed spinach, with the leaves still in big, stringy pieces. I must say the ragout of squash, eggplant and tomatoes reminds me of an undercooked ratatouille.

*

The menu has a section called Salt Creek Specialties, consisting mostly of pastas and sandwiches. It includes a half-pound mesquite-broiled chuck burger and a real Philadelphia steak sandwich--thinly sliced New York steak, grilled onions and melted cheddar on a sourdough baguette. But the real reason to come here is the other section of the menu, the one called From Mesquite Broiler, unless you get a really major thrill from the restaurant's California craftsman school of design.

Certainly the desserts aren't a reason. The restaurant makes exactly one on the premises, fruit cobbler, and buys the others. (The waiter told us Salt Creek is looking for a pastry chef.) The cobbler, as usual in restaurants, is really a deep-dish single-crusted pie--a compote of hot stewed berries under a rubbery crust--so forget about homemade.

Settle for decadence and get the hot brownie wedge topped with fudge sauce and vanilla ice cream, or the workmanlike creme bru^lee, a mild custard with a brittle, crackly topping.

Better yet, relax, take a deep breath and inhale the scent of foods smoldering over hardwood embers, in a dreamy, rustic Coast Highway setting where the grill is king.

Salt Creek Grille is moderate to expensive. Starters are $4 to $7.50. Entrees are $7.95 to $19.50.

* SALT CREEK GRILLE

* 32802 Pacific Coast Highway, Dana Point.

* (714) 661-7799.

* Dinner only, Sunday-Wednesday, 4-10 p.m., Thursday, 4-11 p.m., Friday-Saturday, 4-12 p.m.

* All major cards.

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