Designer Eats for the Movie Crowd



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It’s a good idea to make reservations at the new Wolfgang Puck Cafe in Mission Valley Center—the 11th in what thus far is an all-California chain. If you happen to arrive when the nearby 20-screen cinema is disgorging hungry patrons, you’ll be glad to have called ahead. Otherwise, you may well spend a half-hour lean-

ing against the wall, slowly forming the impression that chef Wolfgang Puck and designer Barbara Lazaroff, probably the most celebrated husband-and-wife team in the American restaurant industry, have created a malt shop for the Nineties.

Hard-edged, animated, noisy, populated by sloppily dressed youths and a scattering of their equally rumpled elders, the Wolfgang Puck Cafe shoots the "rest" out of restaurant with an oversized cannon. Frantic tapestries of many-colored tiles scramble up and across the walls in a decor that nearly yanks the eyes from their sockets. Yet the flamboyant decor seems a cynically practical marketing tool, since it appears to have been designed to absorb a lot of wear and tear with minimal impact.

Lazaroff, known for the stunning interiors she designs for the upscale Puck restaurants, has created a brightly colored rumpus room that looks as if it could be hosed down when the party ends. Hard surfaces contribute to the hard feel, and there is little comfort in a place that not only skips such formalities as tablecloths but even ignores such basic amenities as paper placemats. The dining counter that fronts the open kitchen prompted one older observer to remark, "That reminds me of the counter at Woolworth’s." Of course, Woolworth’s never served wild-mushroom tortellini with shiitake sauce, a dish that passes across this counter all day long.

A delightful service staff has been drilled to cycle customers through the restaurant cheerfully but quickly. (Is there a word that neatly encapsulates ruthless efficiency with a smiling face?) And Puck, the man who introduced designer pizza to America when he opened his first Spago in 1981 (this posh eatery now has branches in Las Vegas, Chicago, Mexico City and Tokyo), has written an extensive, quite pleasing menu that makes his trendy salads, pizzas, pastas and entrées affordable and thus accessible to a broad audience.

As a virtuoso chef–cum–businessman, Puck made the intelligent decision to install a good chef in each of his cafe kitchens; in Mission Valley, the post is held by Robert Gaffney, who supervises the menu with considerable flair. And as is true at all Puck restaurants, the seasoning-impaired need not apply. Puck favors sharp, pungent and often spicy-hot effects; in most cases the dishes are no more sedate than the restaurant’s atmosphere. And generally they are delicious; over the course of two visits, only one entrée failed to impress.
The Wolfgang Puck Cafe definitely does trendy.

The menu opens on a strong note with the barbecued-duck quesadilla ($6.95), a juicy confection laden with the perky flavors of guajillo chile sauce, cilantro and grilled onions—with a little sour cream added to play the role of moderator. The slender, crisp, tasty vegetable spring rolls ($6.95) are glamorously presented on an oversize plate painted with pools of plum sauce and hot-mustard sauce and centered with a spicy vegetable slaw, but the portion seems a bit stingy for the price. A curry-ginger marinade and a Thai-style chile-peanut sauce spice up the toothsome chicken satay skewers ($7.50), while the feisty trio of lemon, garlic and cilantro flavor the mayonnaise that does much to enliven the crispy calamari rings ($6.95).

Designer pizzas may seem old hat to San Diegans, who were introduced to them by the Piret’s bistros of fond memory, and later by Sammy’s California Woodfired Pizza. But to my mind, one of Puck’s pizzas is an ideal beginning for the table to share. California’s own wonderfully creamy Laura Chenel brand of goat cheese stars on the four-cheese pie ($8.75), which gains added flavor from pesto, sun-dried tomatoes and sprigs of fresh basil. Roasted peppers and a fiery habañero chile sauce stand up to the gamy flavor of the main ingredient on the lamb sausage pizza ($9.95). And for something refreshing and soothing, consider the signature pizza ($14.50), the lox-and-bagel-inspired pie dressed with smoked salmon, chives, red onion and dill cream.

Every day, the kitchen presumably tosses bushels of the Chinois chicken salad ($8.95 for a huge full order; $5.95 for a sizable half), a complicated, flavorful, crisply textured affair that Puck created at his trend-setting Chinois on Main in Santa Monica. A spicy honey-mustard dressing draws it together quite nicely. The lengthy list of salads is a good one, highlighted by the pungent grilled eggplant, tomato and mozzarella tossed with capers, olives and basil ($7.50) and the sophisticated tumble of spinach, curly romaine, apple-wood-smoked bacon, caramelized pecans and blue cheese ($7.50).

Most pastas take a light approach, such as the fusilli with sautéed seasonal vegetables and a light pesto sauce ($9.50) and the penne with prosciutto, sweet peas, goat cheese and tomatoes ($9.75). The house-style pad Thai noodles—stir-fried with bean sprouts, dried chilies and a choice of seared chicken ($10.95) or sautéed shrimp ($11.75)—incorporate a delicious curry undertone that makes this sizable bowl good to the last bite. But if the server enthusiastically recommends Grandma Puck’s linguine with chicken-based Bolognese sauce ($9.75), be circumspect. This dish is laden with dull flavors, chalk-dry bits of chicken and a boring sauce that contributes nary a single saving grace.

On the other hand, while restaurant meatloaf usually seems an invitation to disaster, the individually prepared veal-based loaf ($11.75) is good enough that a guest who usually has the appetite of a sparrow methodically ate her way through the entire plateful. Packed with herbs, wrapped in bacon and moistened with a well-made Port sauce, the loaf is a bit dry in texture but explosive with flavor, and the generous garnishes of garlic mashed potatoes and crisply fried onion slivers make perfect accompaniments. The same potatoes and a selection of carefully cooked vegetables make fine garnishes for the juicy grilled Norwegian salmon with pesto and roasted-pepper sauces ($14.95).

Rotisserie chicken ($10.75) may seem rather a cliché, but Puck’s plump, juicy half-bird, flavored with fresh rosemary and cooked not a moment too long, has a delicious flavor and is sided with a mountain of what may be the most perfect French-fried potatoes in the city. The entrée list leans heavily to seafood (grilled swordfish with mustard vinaigrette, seared ahi in a Japanese ponzu sauce, each $16.95) but does offer a pepper steak ($18.95) made with beef fillet and three kinds of peppercorns.

Desserts, uniformly priced at $4.95, range from the heavy, monotonous and utterly unrewarding fresh-fruit cobbler (mostly streusel topping over a bit of fruit) to the voluptuous, ultra-moist richness of the warm chocolate soufflé cake with warm chocolate sauce and whipped cream. I would feel better about the vanilla crème brûlée in a chocolate biscotti cup if it were at room temperature rather than chilled, but I can recommend the turtle pecan pie for its candy-like richness. The trio of fruit sorbets with fresh berry compote and berry sauce makes a fine way to finish a meal.
Wolfgang Puck Cafe serves lunch and dinner daily at the west (Montgomery Ward) end of Mission Valley Center, 1640 Camino del Rio North, San Diego; 295-9653. Reservations are advised.

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