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Retrofitted for the '90s

Christopher Gardner

Kinder, Gentler Fare: Chef Lance Katcher opts for warm bicoastal dishes at the newly revamped Eulipia.

Downtown dining mecca strips away the sun-dried, mesquite-grilled '80s and welcomes more comfortable dining

By Christina Waters

LIKE MOST SUCCESSFUL '80s dining establishments, Eulipia paid its dues grazing the fields of world fusion/California cuisine, quoting this and that ethnic influence in grab-bag profusion. That was then. With a sleek new remodel under its belt--long lines of booths and banquettes and a sophisticated mirror back-bar--Eulipia has returned to the North American repertoire with some serious ideas about no-nonsense food, long on updated grill classics, sensuous seafood and hearty appetizers.

Manhattan clam chowder, Key West shrimp fritters, jambalaya, Southern-fried chicken--the menu focus feels like a warm, bicoastal handshake. And it tastes even better, as we found out on our most recent visit to the new, improved restaurant.

Too bad the wine list couldn't be more diverse, I thought, bemoaning the lack of a zinfandel wine-by-the-glass choice. A Benziger Cabernet Sauvignon 1993 ($6.25) did the job just fine, however, as my companion Katya and I tore warm crusts of the house-made bread and dipped them into a tasty cilantro-infused olive oil. Wishing I were twice the woman in order to do justice to a menu that is not cuisine minceur, I decided that we could just take leftovers back to the office and began ordering with abandon.

Soon my Belgian endive salad arrived ($6.95), along with Katya's Dungeness crab cakes ($10.95). New American food can be beautiful, I observed, admiring the fluff of baby greens, the pretty spears of endive, the dusting of feta cheese and the toasted pecans decking the salad. This was salad as event, we both agreed. An overdressed event, however, in which the dressing dominated.

The crab cakes--pricey perfection at $10.95 for two patties plus some greens, a slice of lemon and underripe tomatoes (we remind the kitchen that it is only May)--were easily the best we'd tasted in years. Maybe ever. Packed with moist Dungeness crabmeat, the cakes were crisp without being greasy, their interiors haunted by little topknots of caper, herbs and onion. Of the three sauces provided, the lemon/mustard cream packed a wallop. I would walk a mile for these crabcakes. Katya would walk two miles for them, but then she has a crabcake problem.

Main events just got better at Eulipia. Accepting the brash challenge of a dish that actually billed itself "Truly Awesome Jambalaya" ($13.95), I found out that some things do live up to their hype. Two crayfish crowned the top of a gorgeous mound of mahogany-hued, sassafras- and cayenne-laced rice that had been infused with the heart of Louisiana, as well as lots of plump chicken breast, prawns, peppers, tomatoes and a duck sausage worth betting the farm on. It was the real thing, and more. In fact it was an excessive portion, easily enough for three people. Working my way down the first six inches of jambalaya felt like wading through the bayou. For miles and miles.

Over on Katya's side of the table, a fresh Idaho river trout--boned, butterflied and grilled to moist perfection--lay in a light soy glaze, strewn with fresh scallions. Wafts of richly trout-scented steam mingled with aromas of soy-braised baby tatsoi on a bed of rice. This was a terrific dish, brilliantly executed. No sleight-of-hand, just direct, clear flavors. And at $14.95, this elegant dish was an appealing bargain. More food than we could handle, but a bargain nonetheless.

Lest you think Katya and I had turned into dining wimps, I'll confess that we did hang in there for some of Eulipia's justly famed desserts. Specifically the new greatest dessert in the South Bay, the extraordinary lemon-lime pie ($4.95). Imagine the crunchy graham cracker crust of your dreams. Now fill it with a firm, tangy, barely sweet custard of lemon and lime juices. Finally, adorn with a dollop of unsweetened whipped cream and two ripe strawberries. Katya and I began purring as we put away the last detectable trace of this splendid creation.

Oh and there was another dessert--an expertly done crème brûlée heightened with sambuca licorice liqueur ($4.95). It went especially well with our coffee, but let's face it, we were already high on that lemon-lime thing. And we stayed that way all the way back to work.

Other than the obvious fact that the lunchtime wait staff at Eulipia is hard pressed to keep a timely flow of dishes from kitchen to tables, Eulipia's new glow shines brightly, and tastes mighty fine. Here's one reputation that's firmly intact.

Eulipia Restaurant & Bar
Address: 374 S. First St., San Jose
Phone: 408/280-6161
Cuisine: New American
Ambiance: sleekly unpretentious
Entrees: $7.95-$19.95
Hours: Lunch Tue.-Fri., 11am-3pm; dinner Tue.-Sun, 5pm-midnight. Closed Mon.

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From the May 23-29, 1996 issue of Metro

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