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Pacific Kitchen: Tangled up in blue 

Rising and falling on the wave of Californian cuisine

I've been waiting a long time to review Pacific Kitchen. When it opened in March last year, reports were grim. "Somewhere between ecstasy and horror lies Pacific Kitchen," read the headline of my colleague Cliff Bostock's column. I stayed away for a few months to give it time to sort out its woes. When I did visit, I found a restaurant adrift in a sea of muddy flavors, hackneyed presentations and unsure service.

Then, last August Nick Leahy took over the kitchen after serving as sous under opening chef Michael DeMarco. Leahy is a more ambitious cook than his predecessor, and yet he stumbles upon some of the same problems.

Pacific Kitchen bills itself as serving California cuisine, which is an interesting conundrum in and of itself. In its heyday, California cuisine was revolutionary. But that heyday was a long time ago – these days the best Californian chefs probably would shy away from the term, just as many American chefs who cook in the European tradition now shy away from the term "Continental cuisine."

The term is dated, and the food attached to the term seems dated as well. If the folks at Pacific Kitchen were taking only the best of Californian notions – freshness, creativity – the restaurant's adopted style would not be so loaded. But the restaurant is firmly based in the California of the 1980s and '90s, from the wine-country feel of the dining room and the warm, safe art in the bathrooms to such dishes as squash blossoms stuffed with hummus and served with a Brie fondue. When the Food Network gets its own version of VH1's "I Love the '80s," it's dishes like that we'll see on the screen.

But we as diners should care very little about the timeliness of a trend. Does it taste good? Well, do those squash blossoms taste good? Sure – tasty bites of musky fried hummus with subtle cheese goo. But here's what separates the acid wash from the dark rinse: To my modern palate's sensibilities, the fabulous thing about squash blossoms is their immense freshness, that bracing snap of garden that yields under a light batter and gives equal and opposite balance to the nature of hot oil. At Pacific Kitchen, the blossoms are weighed down by a heavy batter and hummus filling. Their essence is lost.

So it goes with quite a few menu items. Chicken livers over a corn-and-bacon pancake are overcooked and despite a valiant effort can't hold up under the cloying sweetness of a "caramelized honey and ginger vinaigrette."

Yet some of the restaurant's most successful dishes are characterized by the old-school California aesthetic as well. Hawaiian moonfish is served over roasted-vegetable quesadillas with rock-shrimp cream sauce. I can't imagine ever really wanting to eat quesadillas with my expensive entree, but it works beautifully here, the sweet roasted veggies balanced by crisp tortilla. Moonfish is a particularly lovely fish, hefty and meaty with a sweet, pink flesh. Unfortunately, mine was overcooked well past the medium-rare the server recommended. Under- and overcooked is a bit of a recurring theme here.

Other standouts included superfresh oysters, some with pink peppercorn mignonette and some with bacon and citrus butter. My young son lucked out by insisting on ordering the appetizer pizza, which had a wonderful balance of olive tapenade, prosciutto and mozzarella.

But other dishes suffered from a plain lack of attention to detail. The ostrich filet, with its pleasant gamey undertones, was served with a pile of blackened porcini and onions – the mushrooms were burnt beyond recognition. A hulking pork porterhouse served in a delicious chili jus was underdone (and I like my pork pinker than anyone I know), and the chorizo tasted old. A visually beautiful tuna tartare layered with avocado and pineapple salsa was light on the tuna and needed salt.

On the dessert menu, a particularly schizophrenic flan, served with the hard hat of unmelted caramel still perched atop the dessert, is flavored with whole saffron threads that boldly adhere to the sticky sugar and carry their flavor – here so intense as to be mainly bitter – around on your teeth for the rest of the evening. It's one of the worst ideas for an odd flavor pairing I've encountered in quite some time, made even odder by a mush of rhubarb surrounding the dish, which made me think of baby food.

But here, too, when the kitchen controls its wild tendencies and hunkers down on flavor, some beautiful things can come of it. The strawberry-and-almond tart is a fantastic cross between an almond cake and a fruit tart, with the best traits of both desserts – moist, cakey interior and nutty, tart crust exterior.

Pacific Kitchen, which is tucked away behind Highland Avenue and overlooks Freedom Parkway, has all the potential to be a gem of a neighborhood restaurant. The patio has been a particularly inviting place to eat on these late-summer evenings, and service is sincere and steady. And the wine list, thankfully, does not moor itself in exclusively Californian classics, but instead covers a decent breadth of Europe and Australia as well.

All it would take to make this a favorite is some fine-tuning and quality control. I get the feeling that there's a lot of energy and passion in that kitchen; all it needs is an equal measure of discipline and restraint.

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