California cuisine has looked exotic to me at times, but never more so than the other night at Watercolors, a new restaurant in the Cape Cod-style Dana Point Resort. For once, I really saw this style of cooking through unfamiliar eyes, as it was poked, prodded and played with by an incredulous visitor from West Germany who was experiencing it for her first time. I'll never look at grapefruit or goat cheese again in quite the same way.
"My goodness," said Gisa, a grandmother from Dusseldorf who has done more than her share of traveling, "look at all these pastel colors." As we were led to our table across the endlessly large dining area, it was obvious that she was delighted. "This place is big enough to ride a horse through," she marveled.
We took our seats close to a circular window with a sweeping view, and Gisa couldn't have looked happier. "Here," she said proudly, picking up a Villeroy and Boch service plate from the tastefully gray linen under it, "German china." (It would have been mean-spirited to tell her that the plates are from Luxembourg.) "And these trees . . . so beautiful," she said, referring to the giant, potted palms overhanging the brass railings, "this place must have cost a fortune." Even I felt a bit overwhelmed.
Then things started getting funny. First, our waiter, who carried himself as if he was working the late shift in a diner, came over and introduced himself. This got a predictable response from Gisa. "Why is he telling us his name? Who cares?" Soon after, a basket of doughy bread arrived, the cracked wheat kind that you find in Santa Cruz or in food co-ops. Now it was clear from her eyes that she was becoming disoriented. "Is this bread?" she asked. "Why is it so soft?"
Before going any further, I'd like to say that the food at Watercolors is not at all bad; just slightly unusual. Chef Peter Striffolino turned a lot of heads when he was at Princess Alicante, and he has a good track record. He certainly can't be blamed for straying off the beaten path occasionally.
Where, for example, did he ever get the idea to add ginger to an otherwise fine, perfectly velvety lobster bisque? The ginger smothers the natural taste of the lobster and puzzles the palate thoroughly. I thought I was eating Thai food in Maine. Where, again, did he come up with the recipe for those crab cakes, tasty perhaps, but as dry as a Chesapeake sand bar? Thank heavens for a zippy, colorful corn relish that the crab cakes are served with. That made our grandmother smile. "I love corn," she said. "It's so American."
Most people love to eat local delicacies when they travel, and you get plenty of them at Watercolors. An appetizer of steamed clams with chorizo, tomato and cilantro pleased us both, especially the accompanying chorizo , which Gisa picked out with care. "Interesting wurst ," she said. Oysters baked with leeks and spinach fared less well with her, although I enjoyed them very much. "Where is the oyster?" she queried. "Under all this stuff?"
Cheating a little because it's not real California, I ordered a blackened sea bass with corn bread and white beans for her, and medallions of lamb with papaya chutney and red cabbage for myself. The fish was perfect: it came in a wonderfully hot, appealingly crusty mix of spices but was not at all overcooked. Even better, the plate had fresh green asparagus and tiny, delicate little beans. "Wunderbar," she said. My lamb dish was equally well received. The lamb was lean and tender, and the papaya chutney with little pine nuts in it was sensational. "But," said Gisa, "somebody forgot to cook the red cabbage." In Germany, red cabbage is cooked until it's limp, never served al dente as it was here. My guest is sophisticated, but she considered this a sacrilege.
Many main dishes are worth trying at Watercolors. Seared shrimp steeped in dark ale and chives is well-prepared, and the grilled free-range chicken with tomatillos and baby corn, a spa entree, is just right. Striffolino definitely has a way with the grill.
Although Gisa enjoyed most of the tastes, she did have one major complaint. "It's a long way from the kitchen to the table," she said, looking around. "That's probably why nothing is hot. Maybe they should use covers." I concur, but I'm not so sure that's the only problem.
Service tends to be a bit indifferent at Watercolors. The waiters have a tendency to put the plates down and not return until it's time for the next course. On two occasions, our wine glasses were left empty for so long that I finally poured the wine for my guests myself.
To ensure that Gisa would leave happy, I suggested we avoid baked desserts. On a prior visit, I tried the blackout fudge tart (I had been warned away from it), and it was the single worst dessert I have eaten in at least a year. (Paradoxically, a Mandarin chocolate mousse with California dark cherries is great). But she insisted on trying carmelized pears in pastry with apricot glaze anyway. She just gobbled it up and gave me a shrug.
I can't say our evening was a total success, but I wouldn't call it a failure. Perhaps Watercolors will be better when the paint dries.
Prices are reasonable. Appetizers are from $5.50 to $7.95, and salads from $4.25 to $6.95 for a warm Sonoma goat cheese, with red oak lettuce that I think is an absolute must here. Spa cuisine is from $9.95 to $11.95, and entrees begin at $12.95. Eat dessert elsewhere.
WATERCOLORS At the Dana Point Resort
25135 Park Lantern, Dana Point
Open daily 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday brunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking available. All major credit cards accepted.