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Restaurants : ST. BARTH’S: GOOD CATCH FOR FISH FANS

From Santa Fe down to New Orleans, American cuisine has been goin’ south. Those old spice islands--in this case, the West Indies--seem to be next on the restaurant route. (What’s coming? Tierra del Fuego or Easter Island cuisine?)

Caribbean food is perfect for summer: sun-warmed fruit, fresh-caught fish, pungent tidbits and homey soups made with a light hand. The recently opened St. Barth’s serves a pleasing rendition of this easygoing fare.

A bit pricier--and a bit less witty--than Cha Cha Cha, St. Barth’s (the nickname for the island of Saint-Barthelemy, a departement of France, and pronounced Bart’s), a fish market and grill, has already become a popular neighborhood place. Tucked upstairs in a new complex the color of deserts in late afternoon, St. Barth’s has the feeling of serendipity. You know you’re just off Sunset in the middle of the Palisades, but the intense blues and pinks, the flowery oil cloths, the little fat pots of fresh stubby flowers, that tin awning over the fish counter, take you right away.

The menu’s enticing too: creamy corn chowder, conch fritters, coconut shrimp, salads with names like the Gustavia and the Wave and loads of different fresh fish. This is a friendly, lively place; happily, the acoustics are good.

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Since the tables are close together, we did a random sampling of drinks. The party to the right was drinking Mai Tai’s and ginger beer, the people to the left were having Orange Mango juice and Jamaican Red Stripe. (No one seemed to be ordering the Perrier-Jouet Champagne, but be advised that it’s there.)

We started dinner one evening with two splendid soups (and a basket of Il Fornaio bread): The corn chowder was soothing and delicate while the sopito , a lusty, creamy fish chowder made with coconut milk, was plentifully stocked with good chunks of seafood and fish. (Another night it was grainy and too full of cayenne pepper.)

A Caesar salad was indeed crisp and garlicky, a simple green salad came with a smooth balsamic vinaigrette and the Wave (full of shrimp, scallops, mussels and crab) was dotted with such treasures as candied ginger and snow peas.

While the coconut shrimp were good-sized and generously rolled in unsweetened coconut, they tasted no different than ordinary fried shrimp. The conch fritters, on the other hand, were luscious--deep, dark, fat, crisp balls of conch and potato served with a surprisingly good horseradish caper sauce.

Chicken triangles, the sheerest filo parchments stuffed with ground chicken, were quietly fine, accompanied by a high-note apricot and grapefruit sauce.

The light and frizzy crab cakes were really wonderful and came with a special smoky avocado scallion sauce. A couple of the salads-to-go were equally distinct. The pasta salad with lobster, scallops, macadamia nuts and haricots verts had a gentle sprinkling of sesame oil vinaigrette; the crab salad with cucumbers and three kinds of peppers was particularly light-handed. But then the Trinidad-born chef comes by way of the Westwood Marquis.

Since St. Barth’s is a fish market, the catch here is plentiful and very fresh, and the servings are quite large. Any fish may be poached, grilled or sauteed, and everything we had was impeccably done (let’s hope they’ll be able to keep that up when the restaurant is crowded). The grilled dishes tend to be served very crusty on the outside while still tender within. All the fish tried (from poached whitefish to grilled mahi-mahi and aki tuna) was superb. The soft-shell crab, sauteed in ginger butter, was wonderful too. The grilled chicken Monserrat, marinated in ginger and grapefruit, was golden outside and juicy within. Vegetables--from tomatillos to zucchini and red peppers, and served with all entrees--were also nattily grilled.

Side dishes range from very good black beans and very smart rice and peas to a deadly dry attempt at plantains. (On the three occasions we tried them, they remained disappointing tubers.)

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For dessert, there is a rather ordinary fruit salad, a wickedly delicious tarte tatin and a sherry cake that is achingly sweet. And Sunday brunch (which may be extended to Saturdays) includes macadamia nut pancakes with coconut syrup, those crab cakes, sage patties and steaming Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee straight from those spice island hills.

St. Barth’s Market and Grill, 15200 Sunset Blvd., 112, Pacific Palisades, (213) 454-5634. Closed Mondays. Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday, brunch and dinner Sunday. Beer and wine. Street parking. All major credit cards. Dinner for two (food only): $40-$55.


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