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Heavenly Daze

[whitespace] Chef Stephen Hanecak
George Sakkestad

King of the Grille: Chef Stephen Hanecak serves as ringleader of Paradise Beach Grille's gorgeous interior, strong wine list and menu of fresh seafood.

A contemporary grill with a view, the new cocktail restaurant offers gorgeous visuals with its fun bar food

By Christina Waters

WOW, IS THIS PLACE gorgeous, Jack and I both exclaimed as we set foot in the former Larry's (and the former Edgewater), now the very clear and present Paradise Beach Grille. From its deco-lettered signage and avocado-green exterior to its zinc-topped tables, wall sconces and gleaming wood floors, this is easily the best-looking beachfront dining room Capitola has seen in years.

A curved bar--clearly the cocktail spot these days--leads a flagstone walkway to an equally attractive back deck. Someone decorated this new dining room with plenty of love, taste and money. However, we do not dine with our eyes alone, and we discovered that the aesthetic emphasis here sends a mixed message.

The menu at Paradise Beach Grille offers cutesy names for its items, like Coco-Berry Prawns, Green Room Shrooms, Beach Blanket Breadalon, even a Painted Sunset Swordfish entree. Essentially, the menu appears to emphasize glorified resort appetizers to go with its beautiful cocktails--lots of breaded and tempura- dipped goodies, quesadillas, marinated chicken wings-- essentially fun food presented with an upbeat attitude. Yet the decor--and prices--seems to suggest a more sophisticated dining experience.

Seated at the attractive banquette that holds down the main dining room's far wall--treated in a soothing shade of pale lemon yellow--we enjoyed dipping fresh francese into a high-wattage blend of garlicky balsamic vinegar and olive oil, while enjoying glasses of an excellent David Bruce Pinot Noir 1996 ($7.75) from a list that features many a local vineyard. When our appetizers arrived, it became apparent that the reigning culinary style here is as decorative as the menu listings--decorative in the extreme.

I sampled my excitingly arranged prawn "martini" ($10.95)--made of grilled, very oily prawns draped in a mango salsa-filled martini glass, topped with a scallion "umbrella." Yet there was no flavor. I kept tasting, admiring the beautiful colors of the diced tomatillos, tomatoes and mangos, but no flavor surfaced.

We moved on to a Monterey Bay green salad ($4.25), a feisty love letter to the concept of premium greens that was dotted here and there with roma tomatoes, roasted corn and honey-roasted walnuts. On top was a garnish of overly chilled baby onion rings and a fan of avocado. The Champagne wasabi vinaigrette--a combo of seasonings that sounded wonderful--was mostly oil and also lacked flavor. This was a fine salad concept that failed to come together because of a lackluster dressing. With a bit of fine tuning, that sort of glitch can be easily ironed out.

We were still in the midst of exploring the unfulfilled flavor potential of these appetizers when our large entree dishes arrived. "So soon?" we murmured politely. "Uh-huh--we don't mess around here," our waiter beamed, moving plates around so that we could get closer to the second course.

"This lemon decoration is incredible," Jack observed, motioning to a lemon slice prettily knotted into an ornate bouquet. It was. But the kitchen's addiction with adornments didn't stop there. On each plate, a timbale of risotto had been laced with intensely flavored sun-dried tomato, drenched in oil and unnecessarily topped with grated cheese. Risotto is a tricky item to offer in a restaurant--and in this situation, rethinking is in order.

A bevy of sautéed summer vegetables had been inundated by garlic, and my three slices of outstandingly moist yellowtail ($16.95) literally swam in oil and butter, thickly frosted with more bits of pepper, tomatoes, green herbs and butter. Jack's Painted Sunset Swordfish ($19.95) was set into a baroque landscape of more risotto, more garlicky veggies and a parchment filled with a cloying brown mousse of roasted vegetables.

It was all too much and made us wish that this lovely restaurant featured a few simple grilled items--this seafood was too lovely to have been so completely overwhelmed by fussy saucing. Not every dish needs to be oiled, decorated and topped.

A slice of outstanding, housemade key lime pie ($4.95) made us both very happy. Tart and creamy, it arrived with a mound of unsweetened whipped cream, a sprig of fresh mint and some lovely fresh berries. Paradise Beach Grille is off to a good-looking start--and, I hope, a few culinary adjustments.


Paradise Beach Grill
Address: 215 Esplanade, Capitola
Phone: 831/476-4900
Hours: Daily 11am-11pm (till 11:30pm Fri.-Sat.)
Chef: Stephen Hanecak
Ambiance: *** A sleek, contemporary grill interior opens out to a killer view of the estuary and beach.
Service: ** Friendly, helpful and eager to please.
Cuisine: * 1/2 Ambitiously presented, high-quality cocktail food and burgers win out over the fussy entrees that need fine tuning.

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From the August 6-12, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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