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You Go, Grill

Santa Barbara Grill
Christopher Gardner

Green Grill: Executive chef Patrick Clark gets choked up over local produce at the veggie-savvy Santa Barbara Grill.

New grill goes the distance to lavish its clientele with bold flavors

By Christina Waters

THE NEW Santa Barbara Grill--occupying the space of the old Sports City Cafe headquarters in Cupertino--is a lovely sight. Playful yet adult, the dining rooms glow with a non-clichéd aubergine and golden color scheme. In the front dining room, the bar and sports-channel island still offers aid and comfort to boys (and girls) of summer, but with executive chef Patrick Clark and his California Culinary Academy degree at the helm, Santa Barbara Grill is definitely about food. A sensitivity to regional produce powers the New American menu and, from what we found last week, a whole new emphasis on flawless vegetable variations.

Yes, this is a grill, so we agreed that a steak would be in order. That idea was reinforced by the presence of a half bottle of Calera 1994 pinot noir ($17) on the wine list--which showcases local wines under their own "Santa Cruz" appellation heading. In graceful balloon goblets--the sort that should be required by restaurant law--our pinot began to expand spicily, as we attacked a basket of pliant, herb-laced breads.

Alan, who dotes on gorgonzola, drooped slightly when presented with his appetizer salad that had been titled "Gorgonzola Stuffed Pear" ($7.50). Oh, it was a gorgeous plate, crowned with a bouquet of mixed field greens so sweet, so pungent, that you'd swear they'd been grown outside the kitchen door. And the raspberry herb vinaigrette was wonderful. However, the gorgonzola stuffing amounted to dime-sized nuggets that dotted the center of five or so slices of crisp, ripe bosc pear. With a more generous cheese-to-pear ratio, this would have been a destination dish.

Both of us attempted to make friends with an appetizer of chicken and basil potstickers ($6.95), but with little success. Dripping oil, the crescent pastas had been plumped with a bland filling, and an even blander mayonnaise dipping sauce whose pale orange color allegedly originated somewhere near a roasted red pepper. Near, but not close enough. This dish should be radically re-thought or quietly abandoned.

Entrees carried some of the real thunder in Santa Barbara Grill's menu. Alan grinned broadly when his buttery, tender grilled filet mignon (18.95) arrived, encircled with a who's who of local produce. The slightly overcooked filet topped a creamy mound of grits (think American polenta) whose lacing of cheese and chipotle enhanced without cloying.

"Brussels sprouts!" Alan cried joyfully. "I never get Brussels sprouts. It's a risk," he observed, "but one that really pays off for me." Indeed, the bitter nuttiness of the sprouts was expertly showcased--along with infant zucchinis, baby carrots and superior broccoli--by simple sautéeing. We were impressed with the entire dish--freshly conceived, beautiful to look at and loaded with fine organic produce.

At this point, new glasses of an Estate Baccala 1995 merlot ($6.75) and Australian Chateau Tahbilk 1992 shiraz ($7) joined our party. The merlot, incidentally, was multilayered and lovely. The shiraz just sat in the glass like a huge, antipodean lump. Both, however, went nicely with my entree of the evening's risotto ($13.95), a robustly flavored, saffron-intensive affair loaded with huge nuggets of fresh salmon and ahi and dozens of moist rock shrimp. Even the rice remained moist and succulent--a tall order for restaurant risotto. Curiously, this all-yellow dish was presented without any contrasting garnish. A criss-cross of deep green garlic chives, or a sprig of fresh rosemary, would have broken up all that visual monotony.

With our decaf cappuccinos, Alan and I split an order of something the house calls Griddled Banana Cake ($6). We call it our new favorite dessert. A long, rich slab of designer banana bread arrived topped with--God help us!--homemade coconut ice cream and napped with little pools of dark chocolate and intense coconut sauce. Smart, fresh, impeccably conceived, it was one of those desserts that can quickly become legendary.

This new grill in town--it has delicious prospects.

Santa Barbara Grill

Address: 10745 N. De Anza Blvd., Cupertino
Phone: 408/253-2233
Hours: Opens 11:30am Mon.­Sat.; dinner served until 10pm Mon.­Thu., 11pm Fri.-Sat. and 9pm Sun.
Cuisine: American fusion
Price: Reasonable; entrees average $15
Chef: Patrick W. Clark
Ambiance: Contemporary grill

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From the June 19-25, 1997 issue of Metro.

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