Getting Down in Descanso

The latest member of the extended South Bay restaurant family that includes Chez Melange in Redondo Beach and Fino, Misto and Depot, all of Torrance, debuted last week. Proud parents Michael Franks and Robert Bell named their new Hermosa Beach restaurant Descanso after the Spanish word for rest or relaxation--in other words, downtime. The bright glossy decor takes the tropics as its theme with an ornate tiled bar, cascades of faux bougainvillea, and a wraparound tropical mural in shades of azure, mango and lemon. Shuttered trompe l'oeil windows and other whimsical touches give it the look of a light opera set.

Located just off PCH in a walking area of this laid-back beach town, Descanso is big, brash and packed. The menu seems just as crowded, all-encompassing in its enthusiasm for dishes from the far reaches of the world. Plantain, coconut, jicama, green papaya, mango, yuca and black beans show up again and again. Not sure you've quite grasped the meaning of patacones served with the mango and vodka-cured salmon? The waitress whips out a nifty glossary. Here it is: green plantain crackers. The unconventional menu organizes dishes by categories like "pupus and sticky fingers," "seafood cocktails," "cakes" (that's savory, not sweet), "sticks" (read sates and kabobs), "bowls" (one-dish meals in a bowl) and more. "Breads" includes a blackened swordfish sandwich on focaccia from the partners' new Pier Avenue Bakery next door.

By the time you get to the specialties, i.e, main courses, they look a lot less interesting than the rest of the menu. Where to start? How about shrimp deep-fried in a shaggy plantain batter or the grilled Thai sausages served alongside a delicious slippery green papaya slaw? Portions are not exactly dainty, so the best plan is to order in flights, dipping back into the menu as hunger dictates. No hurry, it's Descanso.

* Descanso, 705 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach. (310) 379-7997. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Full bar. Mix-and-match dishes $4.95-$9.95; specialties (entrees) $11.95-$15.50.

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