A Foodie's California-Style Dream Cafe

DINING OUT

August 29, 1993|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Eureka, Sutton Place Gourmet, 1809 Reisterstown Road, in the Festival at Woodholme. (410) 484-6044. Open for lunch and dinner. AE, MC, V. No smoking. Wheelchair accessible: yes. Prices: appetizers, $4.50-$5.95; entrees, $7.95-$13.95.

"Some people are upset that we've changed our menu," the woman who answered the phone told me when I called to make reservations at Eureka, the newest venture of Sutton Place Gourmet.

I can see that. The cafe at the area's classiest supermarket used to be the place to have a gourmet sandwich or a salad -- a quick lunch or light supper (assuming you could get a table). Suddenly it has turned into Eureka. The new menu is a foodie's dream, a cross between Pacific Rim and Southwestern cuisine, with a few surprises thrown in for good measure. But if you go there expecting to get your usual tuna-salad sandwich, you may be taken aback to find grilled yellow-fin tuna on the menu instead -- cooked medium rare with lemon-ginger sauce and vegetable stir fry on glass noodles. And perhaps fried jalapeno jack cheese with black beans and avocado lime sauce for a first course.

Still, by whatever name and whether it's a glorified sandwich shop or California Incarnate, the Sutton Place Gourmet has the ++ freshest ingredients going for it. It has wonderful breads from its bakery (we were given a selection of irresistible cheese-herb bread, pumpernickel, baguette and focaccia). It has desserts to die for. And in between there are fish from its own fish market and a range of gourmet produce from the store.

Of course, it all depends on what the kitchen does with these good things. Alas, our meal was so wildly uneven I wouldn't venture to generalize. Just when I want to characterize every dish as having either gummy noodles or al dente black beans -- and in one case both -- I remember the Pacific Rim tostadas. Each crisp square of won ton skin, faintly caramelized, bore a slice of sashimi-grade tuna seared for only seconds, a curl of fresh ginger and a bit of fiery wasabi. A remarkable and almost flawless starter.

But then there were the grilled portobello mushroom quesadillas. These were made with blue and red corn chips, with so much Gorgonzola cheese between them that the smell alone would knock you off your chair. It completely overwhelmed the mushrooms.

A 10-inch, three-cheese pizza suffered from the same flaw. (Yes, we could have had a BLT pizza or one with barbecued chicken, but I'm getting tired of weird pizzas.) Too bad. The combination of fresh mozzarella, fontina and Gorgonzola would have been a standout with just a suggestion of the last; it had a fine crust, a savory tomato sauce and fresh oregano.

Eureka offers handsome salads made from the interesting greens sold in the store, including a mixed salad with blue cheese and candied walnuts. It wasn't as dreadful as I thought it would be -- the walnuts were only lightly candied -- but I wasn't as enthusiastic as my friends, who were wild about the combination.

I much preferred a Chinese chicken salad with strips of grilled chicken nestled in a radicchio leaf. Julienne vegetables, crisp fried noodles and cold udon noodles completed the plate, all glistening prettily with a sesame vinaigrette.

In the salad line, there's a fine version of gazpacho soup made from fresh produce -- a little different than the standard, though I couldn't tell you exactly why -- garnished with crisp threads of colored corn chips.

There was violent disagreement about several of our dishes. This food is strange enough that nothing will appeal to everyone. Like every trendy restaurant nowadays, Eureka features pizzas and pastas, but the pasta primavera in this case was made with glass noodles. They floated in a clear broth enhanced with lemon grass, adzuki beans and seasonal vegetables. I liked the lightness and subtle flavor. My friends disagreed: "Tasteless." "Dull." "Gummy noodles."

I was struck by the painterly quality of grouper arranged with mussels, new potatoes, squash and peppers -- it was beautiful -- but was surprised at how bland it tasted compared to the explosive seasoning of some of the other food.

I was also nonplused by a boneless grilled chicken breast. (In case you're wondering, there's no red meat on the menu.) How could any food this prettily presented, with white and black beans, a cucumber and fresh corn salsa and fresh pico de gallo, be so basically uninteresting?

At this point in our meal, just after we'd ordered dessert, an incredibly strong smell filled the room -- as if we were eating dinner and pumping gas at the same time. You start to feel a little dizzy. After a few minutes, one of my friends, a doctor of toxicology who knows her solvents, suggested we have dessert at the tables outdoors. The waiter stopped by to explain that the store had spilled some cleaner, but it sure didn't smell like Pine-Sol to me.

So we sat at the tables outdoors (usually used by people getting carryout from the deli) and shared four seductive desserts. My favorite was the chocolate enchiladas, light and not very sweet, with their chocolate mousse filling studded with a few blueberries. But everyone else sneered at me and concentrated on the dolly sin cake, a deadly chocolate cake; creamy chocolate mousse pie; and a Southern-style strawberry shortcake made with biscuit dough.

Actually we weren't unhappy being outdoors because the dining room doesn't have much in the way of atmosphere. It's just a cafe setting, very much part of the store, pleasant enough but in no way reflective of the food -- except for a pretty little pot of cactuses on each table.

Next: The Prime Rib

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