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SOCAL STYLE / Restaurants

Where the View and Menu Are Pure California

July 19, 1998|S. IRENE VIRBILA

It's finally summer, and the blue Pacific beckons. Up and down the coast, the cool ocean breeze works its magic at scores of restaurants, but if you're counting on a bona fide ocean view to enhance your meal, the choices dwindle. One vantage point worth considering is at Shutters on the Beach, the luxe beachfront hotel at the end of Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica.

As you pull up, lights twinkle in the gnarled coral tree at the center of the circular driveway. While bellhops are busy with monogrammed luggage, there's not only a valet to take your car but also a doorman to usher you into the white clapboard hotel. In the lobby, guests and locals mingle, keeping an eye out for one of the overstuffed armchairs in front of the fire or one of the tables overlooking the sand (a perfect place for an aperitif at sunset).

But for lunch or dinner, the best seats are in Shutters' restaurant, One Pico. I've always liked its airy architecture, with its high rafters, and generously spaced tables and expanse of windows facing the azure sea. The view at sunset is riveting yet, surprisingly, the hosts don't hoard those window tables. One night, when I show up without a reservation, the hostess looks over her reservation book, brow furrowed. Is she going to give us that table for two wedged in a corner near the entrance? At most places, you could count on it. But, no, she collects a couple of menus and leads us to a large table set for two in the middle of the room, one with a great view.

The wait staff follows through with attentive service. The food can be quite good, too, though One Pico's kitchen isn't nearly as consistent as it should be. It might be that the chef, Desi Szonn-tagh, is fairly new and the kitchen simply needs more time to adjust to his style. At least I hope that's all there is behind the problem because I liked the food Szonntagh turned out at 2087, an American Bistro, in Thousand Oaks.

One Pico's California menu includes all the usual suspects--ahi tuna, goat cheese, Portobello mushroom, corn chowder, Chilean sea bass, rack of lamb--and, at first glance, looks alarmingly generic. Frustrated by the seemingly mundane choices, my companion tells me to order for him, so I do. To start, he gets shrimp cloaked in a pale, crispy batter accompanied by an orange chile sauce, which is basically an updated sweet-and-sour. Curiously, the shrimp don't have much flavor, but I like the baby bok choy salad perfumed with sesame oil. And the rack of lamb I choose for him is delicious, cooked medium rare and encrusted with Moroccan spices. Cumin suits lamb much better than mint.

My plump shrimp and Dungeness crab cakes are especially nice with a pretty salad of asparagus, sliced white mushrooms and grilled corn. And my juicy half-inch-thick grilled swordfish is easily the best I've had anywhere in L.A. It's imaginatively paired with ribbons of cavolo nero, the emerald-black Tuscan cabbage. All this meal needs is a California ending. The strawberry tart, however, with its underripe fruit and underbaked crust, disappoints. I look around. Most of the couples are too entranced with the view and each other to notice.

On a second visit, we don't fare nearly as well. A friend who orders the roasted pear salad with wisps of baby lettuce and fennel, Roquefort cheese and spiced walnuts, and the marvelous Kansas City filet of beef in a perky red wine and caper sauce, is reluctant to surrender a bite to the rest of us. Why should he trade for roasted Chilean sea bass in a powerfully salty black bean sauce? Or for the fibrous white asparagus embellished with acidic sun-dried tomato? No, thank you. He can just look at the pennette and see that the pasta is overcooked. (I could tell him the sauce's Dungeness crab is overcooked, too, but then why add fuel to the fire?) Even something as simple as a grilled Portobello mushroom and arugula salad is tired.

Pulling back and aiming for more subtlety would greatly improve matters here. In particular, I'm thinking of that pungent blast of salt-laden black bean sauce. And steamed mussels in a spicy coconut and lemongrass broth would be wonderful if the kitchen hadn't poured on the cream and loaded the broth with enough lemongrass to flavor 20 bowls. But then comes a beautifully conceived pure California dish of grilled steelhead salmon with a lovely salsa of tomato, red onion and avocado. I simply can't explain how the same kitchen can turn out dishes of such varying quality. On the same night.

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