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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Coastal Stroll: Calloway's is tucked into the Esplanade in Capitola.

Esplanade Experience

Calloway's overlooking Capitola Beach offers a menu of tempting possibilities compromised by a bevy of serving glitches

By Christina Waters

IT'S A PLACE everybody wants to love, this inviting Calloway's wedged between a lineup of watering holes and generic seaside establishments. One look at the attractively presented dishes provides ample proof that someone in this kitchen knows how to use a sauté pan. In several meals at this deli and wine-bar-turned-restaurant, we were impressed with a wine list offering no fewer than 40 vintages by the glass. Desserts showed fresh attitude with glorious results. And every dish was freshly cooked.

Remaining hopeful, we endured sloppy service--casual, thoughtless, sometimes hovering, and at times downright rude-- tables (too wide for conversation) jammed into each other, hard metal chairs and a noise level worthy of the Catalyst.

Our first dinner we were seated at one of three tables fighting for the tiny space in the big picture window. Practically in the lap of the diners on either side, we were constantly jostled by waiters taking orders and delivering plates. At another dinner, we were seated literally in the aisle, where we were again brushed continually by servers oblivious to dishes that needed removing. With more training the serving difficulties can be fixed, though the issue of how to deal with the long, narrow space itself is tougher.

While the atmosphere may create uncomfortable dining conditions, the kitchen aims to please. A generous fresh Dungeness cocktail ($7.50) started us off one evening, along with an excellent Kenwood Zinfandel 1998 and a glass of Bedford Thomson Syrah (both $7). An enormous oblong dish contained three tiny slices of bread--when we asked for more, two slices were eventually produced. Pinned to the window banquette by tables on either side, Jack enjoyed his crab while I liked the crispy pancetta on my huge spinach salad, though the drenching of warm dressing turned the dish into a soup ($8.50).

Another starter of enormous Oysters Marcella ($13) proved overwrought, so thickly crusted with sautéed arugula, onions, prosciutto, cream sauce and Parmesan were the half dozen succulent oysters buried underneath. After a wait, our other appetizer arrived--bringing patrons' orders to the table at the same time isn't a big priority. A pile of arugula, two hard-boiled eggs and a few slices of beet looked literally thrown onto the plate ($7.50). I sought for some flavor in the arugula--in vain.

The menu warns guests that entrees can take 20-30 minutes. And they can. An order of snook (an unfortunate name for a member of the pike family) came completely buried in a riot of cilantro-infused mango, and a good thing too since it also lacked flavor ($17). The rice pilaf and attractive fresh vegetables on the side were delicious. My seafood risotto ($17), which contained but a single scallop, was very creamy and ample (i.e., big) but required salt to rouse flavor. Meat dishes fared a bit better. A stuffed roasted pork loin was plush with sweet and sour glaze created by lots of sun-dried cherries, apricots and a thick port demi-glace ($17). My entree of venison filets was overly generous--there was enough for two meals to take home. But the little beehive of whipped potatoes--prettily presented with a crown of garlic chives--had the texture and flavor of Styrofoam. After being sternly admonished by the otherwise disinterested server that I'd "better not put those containers under the table," we sipped acrid coffee and waited for the wonderful house desserts. (He'd slapped the clear plastic carry-out containers in the middle of the table.) Not exactly mood producing for the dessert to come.

An opulent rhubarb shortcake, served with luxurious fresh cream and warm caramel sauce, proved a destination dessert and helped soothe the rest of the dinner experience. On another occasion, I was thrilled by the finest bread pudding I've had in years, moist and warm and topped with a splendid Jack Daniels sauce. A multistructured ginger and mascarpone cheesecake--great flavor combo--sported a chocolate crust with a bitter baking powdery flavor ($6 each).

Address: 209 Esplanade, Capitola
Phone: 831/465-9225
Hours: Closed Mon. 12-3; 5:30-9, until 10 on weekends.
Service: * Occasionally rouses itself to ask if everything's all right.
Ambience: * 1/2 Narrow, uncomfortable tables and chairs and din-like jazz plus lack of carpeting can create moments of dining chaos.
Cuisine: ** Killer desserts and fresh ingredients.
Overall: With management, training, a fine-tuning of the menu and rethinking the interior design, this restaurant could support the talent in the kitchen.
Fine-tuning is in order.

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From the July 12-19, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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