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South Bay Sizzle

September 29, 1996|S. IRENE VIRBILA

A string of banners proclaiming "world-class cuisine' and a red carpet rolled up to the door make David's, a new restaurant along the Pacific Coast Highway in Redondo Beach, hard to miss once you find the Petco next door. Inside, the restaurant has a buzz and style more reminiscent of West Hollywood than a laid-back beach town.

To the right of the entrance is a tall, handsome wood bar and wine storage area set off from the rest of the restaurant by a curved glass brick wall. Large, colorful galvanized steel cutouts of palm trees, jazz musicians with horns and a Champagne bottle spewing colored glass bubbles give the place a jaunty, beach-shack-gone-chic look. Squadrons of waiters in black shirts, crayon-bright ties and long black aprons sail about the room. Both menu and wine savvy, the young, personable staff work double time to make David's a success.

David's, named for chef/owner David Slatkin, includes the requisite open kitchen where the cooking takes center stage. And sure enough, Slatkin plays the lead, blond hair and goatee precisely trimmed. Two or three other cooks work alongside, but it's Slatkin who propels the plot forward, deftly wielding saute pan and chopping knife, hands faster than a Las Vegas blackjack dealer. His body language exudes confidence.

From culinary school in New York Slatkin went to Miami's South Beach, where he fell in love with the vibrant spices and flavors of Cuban/Caribbean cuisine. South Bay restaurateurs Michael Franks and Robert Bell then brought the L.A. native back to open Descanso, their tropical-themed restaurant in Hermosa Beach. Slatkin later left to start his own modest Hermosa Beach place, South Bay Fusion, which he sold in November.

And now there's David's, where the reasonably priced menu is lighthearted, with a distinctive Caribbean flair. A mesquite-smoked vegetable tamale is a rectangle of fluffy masa topped with a bright-tasting tomatillo salsa and crisp boniato chips: very nice. Latin zarzuela negra, a New World version of Catalonia's graceful seafood stew, is pretty good, too, enriched with clams and mussels and laced with sweet Vidalia onions and lots of fresh oregano. Fresh ceviche in a thick sauce could use a squeeze of lime and a flash of heat to make it sing. But savory twice-cooked pork ravioli sparkle in a spunky green chile salsa. A dip of the spoon into the sweet corn and mussel soup surprises with a shallot and quail egg gordita. But a carefully crafted lasagna of homemade pasta, grilled Portobello mushrooms, shrimp, asparagus and cheese is leaden.

Slatkin can get carried away with exotic--and quixotic--combinations of flavors. He needs to know when to stop. A diner at the next table puzzles over a juicy pork loin topped with smoked Swiss cheese and oddly paired with a sweet Calvados cream sauce. I don't imagine he's ever tasted anything like it.

Ordering entrees is something of a crapshoot. Snook, a firm white fish with a sweet, delicate flavor, comes beautifully wrapped in a banana leaf and served with a wild basmati rice and vegetable pilaf and a tropical fruit chutney. It is first-rate. Bourbon-roasted lamb chops and an interesting black-eyed pea stew, garnished with fried plantains, is marred only by an acrid, over-reduced port and veal reduction. Duck breast with a sour cherry and onion confit arrives, alas, with pasty moo shu pancakes. Free-range chicken, piled two pieces high on a cushion of creamy elephant garlic polenta and smeared with a cold tomato and pearl onion jam, looks unappetizing, and is. Soft-shell crab stuffed with eggplant and artichokes virtually dances on a pillow of mashed potatoes. But it is paired with a smoked tomato salsa, not an improvement on the classic lemon, butter and capers.

Have you been to David's before? your waiter will ask. Because you may not be aware that David will cook a special menu for you. We take him upon the offer one night and are served five courses that begin with a delicious--although a tad too salty--wild mushroom soup garnished with lackluster rock lobster sticks. Seared scallops come with a nifty black bean and baby corn salsa and dabs of four sauces, only one of which worked with the scallops. Then a terrific Chilean sea bass dish encrusted with pumpkin seeds and surrounded with leeks, artichokes and purple potatoes saves the day. The flavors strike an exotic chord and show what this young chef is capable of, with a little editing. But just when my expectations soar, he crashes and burns with a bizarre dish pairing a grilled New York steak with a salty dried shrimp salad.

Slatkin is savvy in his wine choices, a few of which are quite hard to get, such as the Turley "Aida' Zinfandel. And he knows what wines best show off his food.

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