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Well, someone was responsible for my ruined entree, a wonderful-sounding pear-and-caramelized-onion pizzetta ($8.95) that came with endive, radicchio, watercress and bleu cheese dressing and had been listed under salads. The salty cheese crumbles and bitter greens nicely balanced the sweetness of the pears and onions. But nothing was going to atone for the thick, inedible--and burned!--pizza crust that formed the base of the dish. My companion, who once owned a place that served pizza, said she couldn't believe they would "let that go out of the kitchen." And then there was the matter of the limp, yellow watercress that looked like it had gone ten rounds with a wet noodle. My waitress's reaction to these obvious--and inexcusable--flaws? "Awwww," she said, as though she'd just seen someone wearing new shoes step in a puddle. (Later, bar manager Chris Rowe, who is responsible for the fetching, if pricey, California-heavy wine list, explained that the pizzetta is troublesome because its semolina bottom often sticks to the oven.)
On the other hand, the blackened chicken Caesar with fire-roasted peppers, garlic croutons and parmesan cheese ($9.95) was exemplary. (It's a good thing the menu lists the croutons and the cheese, because those never come with a real Caesar.) The romaine was crackling fresh, and the not-too-spicy, well-blackened-but-still-tender chicken strips were sturdy enough to stand up to the light, garlicky dressing without overpowering it.
We finished out the meal with a solid trio of fruit sorbets ($5.95).
For Round Two, we wound up with a waitress who acted like she had just been in the middle of a shootout on the L.A. freeway. Mid-sentence, she would whip her head around to check out who knows what before returning to us and saying something like, "Oh, I'm sorry, it's just so busy." And it was, which turned out to be a recipe for one kitchen disaster after another. The trouble started with the oak-roasted portobello with fresh mozzarella, oven-dried tomatoes and baby mixed greens ($8.95): The mushroom had been not only oak-roasted but over-toasted, and the parts that should have been charred to a nice, caramel crisp were a nice, burnt crisp. We ignored the portobello and picked at the rest of the components. The cheese and tomatoes worked well together, and the greens, while more like toddlers than babies, were still fresh and provided a good mix of textures and bitter flavors.
More production problems plagued our capellini puttanesca ($13.95) with tomatoes, kalamata olives, capers, anchovies and fresh mozzarella. The dish had way too many olives--this was puttanesca, not tapenade--and no mozzarella. When I asked the waitress about the missing cheese, she said, "Oh, I'll check." By the time we finally saw her again--sans cheese--we'd given up and eaten the pasta, leaving a curb of olives around the plate's rim.
But then there was the grilled Florida mahi mahi with jasmine rice, chayote squash (which is sort of like saying "zucchini squash"), papaya relish and mango sweet chile sauce ($16.95). (If the menu would just give measurements along with these lengthy ingredient lists, we could go home and make these dishes ourselves.) This outstanding fish was one dish I could eat over and over again. The mahi mahi had been expertly grilled to delicate perfection, its supple flesh exquisitely enhanced by the lively relish and a lush mango sauce. A soft heap of fragrant rice and slices of chayote made this one of the better deals we encountered at the California Cafe.
With so many other restaurants to escape to in the not-too-distant city--or even other suburbs--the fact that this place charges top dollar and still has a hard time getting it right means something's wrong. While I applaud the corporation's attempt to individualize its eateries, I certainly don't wish they all could be California grills.
California Cafe, 8505 Park Meadows Center Drive, Littleton, 649-1111. Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m., 5-10:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Sunday.
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