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I once overheard a woman extol the charms of a local French restaurant. "The waitstaff is so rude, it's great," she said, not a trace of sarcasm in her voice. "It's just like eating in Paris."

That's a little extreme, but certainly the escape factor is one of the attractions of eating out. Diners want to be transported away from the humdrum--and into the authentic ethnic joint where little English is spoken; the snazzy, adrenaline-boosting New York-style hotspot; the tiny trattoria filled with old straw-and-wax-covered Chianti bottles. Even a ramshackle diner has the ability to evoke another time or place.

And since so many Denverites are from points elsewhere, it's not surprising that they embrace restaurants that remind them of the places they left behind. California transplants, then, should feel right at home at the California Cafe, the overly stylish space in the overly stylish Park Meadows "resort" mall. The restaurant's decor is a California-wacky mix of ski lodge and luau, with Art Deco-ish palm trees leading the way to a steel-clad fireplace that burns even on warm days. In one dining area, the craggy, twiggy wrought-iron fence kept showing up in my peripheral vision, giving me the creepy sensation that the woods were advancing. Like the surrounding mall, the California Cafe doesn't feel quite real.

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California Cafe

8505 Park Meadows Center Drive
Littleton, CO 80124

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Southeast Denver Suburbs

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There's no denying, however, that in this neck of the 'burbs, there's a real need for good, clever food. And the California Cafe wants to deliver--even if it is a corporate-owned-but-not-really-a-chain kind of place that suffers from production problems, has prices that are up there and features service as spacy as the Valley Girl next door.

The Marin County-based ownership company's press materials tout the thirteen Cafes, half of which are in California, as being as autonomous as chain links can be, which means that at the Park Meadows outpost, executive chef and Coloradan Greg Barnhill is given free rein to create his own dishes--as long as they follow corporate guidelines of taking "the best of California cuisine and adding Mediterranean influences and accents of contemporary Colorado cooking."

I've eaten in hundreds of Colorado restaurants, and I still don't have the slightest idea what the "accents of contemporary Colorado cooking" might be. After studying the California Cafe's menu, I don't think the owners do, either. Most of Barnhill's dishes rely heavily on Southwestern ingredients and techniques but fuse other cuisines here and there, usually to good effect. There's also an Italian emphasis, with a little Japanese accent--but contemporary Colorado? And for all the Cafe's bragging about Colorado beef, the dinner menu offers precisely one Kansas City strip steak and one sirloin of undisclosed origins. It's proud, too, of its "nature-fed poultry."

But the Cafe would be better off feeding more information to the waitstaff. Our servers were alternately dazed and confused or just plain uninterested in our needs--such as utensils with which to eat or wine we might want to consume while we ate instead of afterward. On our first visit, the waitress was soooo nice and sweet that we tried to be patient, explaining that we would need some time to peruse the lengthy menu. We then repeated that sentence three times in the next ten minutes, as she kept dropping by. Since the lunch menu involves 31 entree choices, all of which have at least five-word descriptions, a little leeway here would be appreciated. Of course, there's thoughtful explanation, and then there's too much information. Case in point: the menu's open-faced tomato-and-eggplant sandwich with pesto ricotta, grilled balsamic onions and orzo-sun-dried-tomato salad. Breathe.

We decided to start with the smoked-chicken-and-tasso spring rolls with watermelon-jicama salsa and chipotle barbecue sauce ($6.95), mainly because I wanted to say the whole thing really fast like the guy on the Federal Express commercials. Sadly, my tongue tripped over "watermelon-jicama salsa." But when my tongue actually got a taste of that salsa, all sarcasm disappeared. It was breathtaking, crisp and watery at the same time, with fresh, fresh melon mixed with crunchy root vegetable and a breezy touch of cilantro. The salsa was so simple and stunning, it completely outdid the spring rolls. But that wouldn't have been hard: They were skimpy in both size and flavor and had none of the bite promised by the inclusion of smoked chicken and Cajun cured pork.

The spring rolls are one of the few items offered on all Cafe menus. The Dungeness crab cakes with black-bean salsa, citrus vinaigrette and cilantro aioli ($9.95) are another, and it's clear that the company makes these decisions based on some mysterious process that doesn't involve sense. The crab cakes were boring and bready; I can think of at least eight versions around Denver that would blow these away. A few black-bean pellets studded with the tiniest bits of onion and minced cilantro made up the "salsa," the citrus vinaigrette was gooey, and the aioli appeared to be an afterthought of tiny squirts not worth smearing onto a finger.

By now our server had moved from endearingly ditzy to annoying. She tried to make us order a wine that wouldn't have gone with our meals, kept forgetting to bring silverware, and met almost all requests with a look that seemed to say, "Are you sure I'm supposed to be responsible for bringing you things?"

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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