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San Diego Spotlight : Ironwoods Has New Look, Tempting Fare for a Hotel

Monolithic at present if pastoral until the 1950s, Mission Valley seems periodically to increase and recede in importance relative to other restaurant-heavy neighborhoods, often at the expense of downtown San Diego, which probably has the upper hand at the moment.

Mission Valley for some years has been an unpromising spot for diners, although in the not-so-distant past it offered a number of major eateries independent of the hotels in Hotel Circle. But while those large establishments have gone the way of all flesh, the hotel eateries remain, and since they’re there, it is interesting to look in upon one from time to time.

The Handlery Hotel, known for decades as the Stardust but renamed the other year to honor the family that operates the property, remodeled its main dining room in the last year and re-christened it Ironwoods. The name unquestionably is meant both as tribute and lure to the golfers who patronize the hotel’s golf course, links that during the heyday of Mission Valley made the valley a vacation destination in its own right.

The renovation of the room (which remains windowless, but now features a woodsy decor and a modernistic fountain that arches across the ceiling) was accompanied by an updating of the menu, and while you might find difficulty confusing anything on this list with haute cuisine , it is obvious that some thought has gone into it. Because Mission Valley offers few enough serious dining possibilities, this is one to keep in mind.

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The style of the place is interesting in that it maintains the tone of a much earlier era, which is by no means unpleasant, but simply different from what is commonly encountered these days. Perhaps something more easily perceived than described, the mood seems that of the easy-going early 1960s. Among the more enjoyable features is the live, lively music that travels freely from the adjacent bar.

A menu introduction stresses a sensitivity to the current demands for “healthier” food, and notes the use of canola oil in both salad dressings and the deep fryer, as well as the availability of vegetarian dishes. This is paired with a bow to the “Ironwoods tradition” of prime rib of beef; in other words, the restaurant attempts to accommodate all tastes, and within the limits of its menu the place does fairly well.

The “Cajun” rage, largely inspired by ersatz recipes, has pretty well passed, but Ironwoods serves crab cakes with a tangy sauce described by the menu as “Cajun mayonnaise” that turns out to be one of the better renditions of New Orleans sauce remoulade to be found in San Diego. The menu hedges its bets rather seriously by also sending tartar and cocktail sauces, which seems a little like overkill; these are in any case good, crisp, well-packed cakes, composed mostly of crab and just enough crumbs, and browned--in the fryer, no doubt--to a good, dark shade.

The crab cakes probably would be the starter of choice, but there are other interesting options, including the “spicy shrimp saute” (for some reason, the menu avoids regional designations, but this dish is certainly in the Southwest style), or butterflied shrimp with tequila, Serrano chilies and garlic. To be frank, this sort of cuisine is adventurous for a Mission Valley hotel dining room. The crab-stuffed mushroom caps, buried under shredded cheese and baked until gooey, should be pleasing to those who like this sort of thing. Among a la carte salads, the Ironwoods salad offers good, crisp greenery with chopped shrimp, crumbled feta cheese and a mild vinaigrette. Also in a salad mood is the plate of crudites (raw vegetables), accompanied by pesto and seasoned yogurt sauces.

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The range of entrees is surprisingly broad, places some emphasis on seafood, offers the pastas without which no menu is complete these days and even extends to an Oriental stir-fry of chicken in hoisin sauce with cashews, water chestnuts, bell peppers and assorted vegetables. An Oriental sensibility returns with the vegetarian stir-fry that substitutes rice noodles for the chicken mentioned above, and with the tempura-fried shrimp.

A menu supplement offers the day’s fish, mostly prepared with garnishes that show an adventurous spirit. Char-broiled ahi recently was offered with enoki mushrooms marinated in soy sauce, and mahi mahi with a pineapple salsa. The swordfish, also char-broiled and generously enough apportioned if cut somewhat thinner than might have been desired, was sided by a serrano chili-seasoned bearnaise , a fairly serious undertaking for any restaurant that in this case came off very well. The bearnaise , among the most elegant of French sauces and one commonly butchered by San Diego cooks, lacked a bit in texture but had quite a nice flavor.

The efforts with the fish aside, Ironwoods’ meat-and-potatoes roots came through with the selection of side dishes, a very back-to-basics baked potato or the local version of “rice pilaf” which, despite its gooey shortcomings--all present here--seems endlessly popular. The potato of course made the most sense with the featured prime rib, which was no better or worse than the average rendition, the meat reasonably tender but fairly lacking in flavor. As at many restaurants, this is available in small, medium and large cuts.

Among other dishes, Ironwoods takes numerous steps off the beaten path. The “scampi Santa Fe,” one of the few dishes to be given regional identification, is a good combination of shrimp, baked under a coverlet of feta and cream cheeses flavored with chilies and cilantro, with a smooth tomato-bell pepper sauce. There are also a grilled squid steak with remoulade sauce, a Yucatan-style stew of clams, mussels and fish in herbed broth, fettuccine with smoked salmon and pine nuts, and grilled, marinated chicken breast in pesto sauce.

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According to the server, the majority of desserts are not made on the premises except the apple strudel, which on the occasion of a recent visit also happened to be catered. It was good enough, and the cinnamon ice cream that topped it was a simple but welcome touch.

IRONWOODS Handlery Hotel, 950 Hotel Circle North, San Diego 298-0511

Lunch and dinner daily

Entrees cost $9.95 to $17.95; dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $35 to $70 Credit cards accepted

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