Hotel Swell

A skilled chef shines in the midst of malldom

click to enlarge MUSSEL TONE: Pelagio's well-balanced dish of braised mussels and merguez sausage. - LISA MAURIELLO
MUSSEL TONE: Pelagio's well-balanced dish of braised mussels and merguez sausage.

Situated on the ground floor of the Renaissance Hotel International Plaza, a short walk from miles of parking lot tarmac and teeming hordes of mall consumers, is Pelagia Trattoria. The proximity of megamall and public lodging gives the place a disconcerting aura, one that seems counter to the exclusivity that often characterizes a fine dining restaurant. There's a sense that some of the patrons haven't come for the food, but are merely seeking a place where they can put their weary feet up and get a bit of grub before making one last run at the sale rack at Neiman Marcus.

I know, I know, it sounds snobby, but even our server confirmed this feeling. Exceptionally efficient and eminently likeable, she felt the need to over-explain everything on the menu, almost by rote. Once we ordered she immediately decided we were "foodies," implying that the majority of her clients, well, aren't. Pelagia is forced to cater to the drop-in diner - vacationing hotel dwellers and upscale shoppers - and it shows.

It is a pretty enough place, although a bit generic. Ever-popular multi-colored bubbled glass chandeliers light the dining room, with curves and rectangles of dark wood outlining the open kitchen and bar area. More colored glass vases line open shelves, and the floor is a geometric arrangement of dark and light wood squares. It's all a bit soulless, as if someone ordered the standard "modern" fine dining restaurant kit out of a catalogue and had it shipped in from Las Vegas, where dozens of restaurants just like this must go in and out of business weekly. The decor is pleasant, innocuous and does nothing to frame the excellent Mediterranean cuisine of seasoned chef Fabrizio Schendardi.

Exactly the same as traditional Spanish tapas, Pelagio's dozen or so "stuzzichini" ($4.50 each) are a great way to enjoy the bare essentials of Chef Schendardi's culinary skills. The octopus preserve is a perfect example. Chilled diced octopus - toothsome and meaty, marinated in fruity olive oil and thin slices of raw garlic - sat atop a vivid orange puree of tomato and carrot. These flavors were brought to blossom by subtle heat from a tiny infusion of habañero pepper. Simply prepared fresh ingredients, free of over-exuberant chefly meddling.

This sensibility also guides the larger appetizers at Pelagia Trattoria. A special of the evening, our bowl of beef stew ($4.50) was the Platonic ideal of hearty soup. Tender chunks of beef, potato and diced carrot sat in a broth that was deeply flavorful, perfectly seasoned, and had another tiny bite of spicy heat to tickle the palate and open the senses. No garnish, no fuss, just damn fine soup.

Braised mussels ($9.50) had a lot more going on, but still maintained a balance. Black shells cupped tender, perfectly cooked mussels and tiny discs of lamb-filled merguez sausage. The abundant broth they rested in was redolent with black pepper and garlic to match the sausages, brine from the mussels, and a hit of provencal herbs to freshen everything up.

When Chef Schendardi does decide to meddle, he meddles with the right dish, transforming the ubiquitous Caesar salad into an outstanding "Caesar fondue" ($7). Placed upright in a cardboard to-go container were long green romaine leaves, barely grilled, accompanied by a ramekin of thick Caesar dressing. The still-crisp leaves, tasting strongly of grilled meat and olive oil, matched perfectly with the heady anchovy-laden dressing and shaved parmigiano reggiano. Eat it with your hands.

This series of perfectly constructed dishes made us a bit too optimistic about our entrees. Powerful flavors threatened to overwhelm two of our main courses, while the third was downright bland.

Although ideally cooked - creamy and just slightly al dente - the nightly risotto ($18) had become merely a foil for excessive amounts of gorgonzola. The pungent cheese was tempered somewhat when eaten with slices of the apple-stuffed chicken roulade placed on top, but even then the cheese was by far the dominant player. I can still taste it, days later.

By far the best entrée - still a far cry from the appetizers - was the fresh catch special ($24). A flounder filet covered in seasoned flour was sautéed golden brown, flaky and moist, accompanied by spicy-sweet parsnip puree and peppery wilted arugula. Pungent yellow mustard was dotted around the plate, fine in moderation but too powerful for the mild fish and parsnips.

Oddly, the simplest entrée - pistachio crusted rack of lamb ($33) - was the most disappointing part of the evening. Although the impeccably frenched chops were seared crisp outside and roasted rosy pink inside, the ground pistachio "crust" was a half-inch thick blanket the consistency, color and flavor of wet sand. It served to merely dull the juicy, rosemary-scented lamb. Similarly bland were the accompanying triangles of grilled polenta, a few leaves of rosemary providing a meager bit of taste.

Wine was made for this type of food. Pelagio's list, although weighted down with new world wines too overblown for much of this cuisine, has a good smattering of French and Italian wines at fairly reasonable prices. By-the-glass prices are just high enough to encourage bottle sales without seeming usurious. No vintages listed, though - even on the high-priced cellar list.

Pelagio's dessert selection does offer a change from the ever-present unimaginative fare that populates fine dining menus around town. Even the two nods to the commonplace were slightly re-imagined, with mascarpone gelato decorating the ubiquitous flourless chocolate torte and rosemary scenting the inevitable apple tart.

We tried some of the more distinctive items instead. Savory and just slightly sweet, as Italian desserts so often are, the polenta-ricotta cake ($6.95) was crumbly and dry, an elegant dollop of cappuccino mousse and puddle of strawberry sauce providing a bit of verve. The traditional bunet ($6.95) was vastly more interesting. Essentially a flan flavored with coffee, cocoa, amaretto and grappa, the bunet tasted and looked like the darkest night. Layers of deep flavors, with powerful fruit-scented grappa underlying the whole concoction, made this shadowy little custard the most intriguing dessert I've had in ages.

Although the atmosphere may be empty of feeling, Chef Schendardi's cuisine certainly isn't. With just a few missteps, he successfully manipulates ingredients into balanced compositions - sometimes elegant, sometimes hearty - all with a comforting simplicity that allows the base flavors to shine through.

Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. He can be reached at [email protected]. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.

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