Waterworld

Cafe Pacific may not resemble San Francisco much, but it's still pretty good

Café Pacific is a cliché. This is heresy. Shuffle into this bosom of Highland Park culture (Highland Park Village) and blurt such a thing, and you'll quickly be felled by a 2-carat marquise bullet right between the eyes. But look at the place.

Your feet are surrounded by black and white marble tiles. Dark wood, brass railings, and etched and beveled glass panels swaddle your comfort zone. Servers in starched linen shuttle through the room dispensing wine and menu advice. Diners--all hair, rosy cheeks and fingers loaded with insurance riders--seem to know each other (squeal squeal, kiss kiss, the insincerity that lubricates society). The menu has crab cakes and veal Oscar.

Café Pacific clawed its way onto the landlocked steak and potatoes terrain back in 1980, when Jack Knox and the late Mel Hollen partnered to create a "San Francisco-style" restaurant. Perhaps this is San Francisco in the minds of those who refer to the city as Frisco, even though they have one of their own up the freeway.

Not that any of this is a bad thing. Café Pacific is one of the few true neighborhood restaurants in this urban span: pretty good for an eatery lodged in a mall. And while the servers parade in whites, they're not stiff, at least not all of them. Our waiter noticed the anxiety. "Do you have time constraints?" "Seven-thirty," we said. "Mavs game?" he shot back.

It's always heartening to know a guy in pressed linen can relate to millionaires in floppy shorts chasing a ball through an airplane hangar. He had approximate prep times down on each dish, and he was able to estimate how frenetically we'd have to slalom and park simply by calculating cook and eat times (substitute appetizers and dessert with wine for fluid speed; plus the wine list has slender markups). Simple grills (fish, chops) are quick. Oven-roasted lamb chops take a bit longer. Lamb it is.

The portion is massive. Three pairs of chops are spaced inelegantly on the plate. They're wetted by a wine demi-glace. A mound of mashed potatoes rests nearby, along with a drift of carrot threads and green beans. The meat is fatty and chewy, but the flavor is invigorating: well-seasoned with that delicate thread of sweetness that rides the edge, threatening at every bite to jump into rude gamy raciness. It's this threat, that of the annihilation of polite culinary balance, that makes dining a voyeuristic thrill ride for those who break out into cold sweats when the wine is corked--more civilized than, say, watching an auto race with well-concealed hopes a car's rear end will break loose in turn four to set up a messy T-bone. That's true sports.

Our server may have been astute, but he was infuriatingly shy on prescience. Sure, it was fun to see Dirk gallop across the court while Cuban sprang to his feet every time his Mavs squandered eight-point leads only to squeak to a two-point win. Why couldn't he have told us to relax, dine leisurely and saunter home to turn on the tube? Then we could have watched what every casual basketball fan secretly hopes for: fits of fisticuffs between millionaire dribblers and their beer-fortified fans--in Detroit no less. Nothing better.

What the waiter does push is Café Pacific's seafood, which is a good thing, because this Highland Park checkered-floored cafe is essentially a fish shop. Yet on that score, the results are mixed, though the efforts can be fascinating. Tempura shrimp aren't just coated in a simple tempura batter; they are instead wrapped in sheets of glass rice noodles before they're dipped, a process that tightly retains tempura philosophy. Brought to Japan by Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century, tempura has in many ways evolved into the essence of Japanese cuisine: the meticulous deployment of the absolute freshest ingredients.

Consequently, tempura, when skillfully prepared, is a fried food that is light, with a taste completely defined by the ingredient itself rather than oil or batter. Here, the sheath is whisper-thin despite the double-layered exterior, slipping over the girth like a glass slipper. The shrimp drool rich briny sweetness.

Fried calamari is more competently typical--and typically uninteresting. The rings (only rings, not tentacles) are tender, and the coarse coating is deep bronze with a nutty flavor barely intruded upon by seasoning. It comes with two dipping sauces: cocktail and tartar. How trite is that?

Though more distracting than tragic, disappointments can mount. Item one: fish tacos. This is a thing you'd hope would be flawless in a Highland Park cafe, even one next to a Hermes boutique. And it looks that way at first, rife with potential. The tacos come with a sprawl of green rice, stained by cilantro, except this rice doesn't have the herb's uplifting aromas and energizing flavors. It mostly leaches butter, so it falls short of expectations.

So do the tacos. Sure, they're fat, loaded with tomatoes, peachy swirls of chipotle aioli and shredded lettuce without a hint of leaf blemish or iceberg rot. But the beer-battered white fish fillets were burned and dry. Leading edges and tapered tips were blackened and bitter.

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