Trouble in Paradise
Taking the Good With the Bad at Pacifica Fine Dining
Pacifica Fine Dining3801 N. Capital of Texas Hwy., Suite A-180, 327-3332
Mon-Thu, 5:30-10pm; Fri-Sat, 5:30-11pm; Sun, 5:30-9pm
My experiences at Pacifica have been about as varied as the restaurant's decor, which veers wildly from fussy fin-de-siècle Vienna to geometric Frank Lloyd Wright to contemporary aquatic, all of it coming together around a sea of white-clothed tables lighted by small oil lamps. An evening of appetizers and wine on the patio gave me something to rave about to friends who hadn't tried the restaurant. A quieter dinner for two left me disappointed with the kitchen's odd pairing of main dish and its accompaniments. And a subsequent dinner among friends found everyone generally pleased with their plates, if a little too sated to talk much about the meal. One of the newer entries to the burgeoning Loop 360 dining scene, Pacifica characterizes itself as a fine dining establishment, and it possesses the dim lighting and elevated pricing that goes with the moniker. The restaurant finds its inspiration in the tropics, but distinguishes itself from veterans Gilligan's and Cafe Josie by concentrating more on the Pacific Rim, with flavors from Japan, Thailand, and Hawaii figuring prominently on the menu. Pale purple Taro rolls fill the bread basket alongside slices of baguette sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds (black sesame seeds are big at Pacifica), and wasabi flavors the restaurant's butter with an unusual tang.
In the appetizer department, Pacifica offers a Seared Scallop with a Mango-Champagne Vinaigrette and Hot Chili Puree ($9) that deserves praise. A mound of field greens occupies the center of the plate, and around it, three silver dollar-sized sea scallops sit in a shallow swirl of the spicy, fruity sauce. The scallops are truly seared, with a good, golden complexion on the outside and a super-moist, cool interior. Another appetizer worthy of applause is the Sesame Tempura Jumbo Shrimp served with a Mint Chili dipping sauce ($10). In it, four butterflied shrimp come cloaked in a light white batter fried to just slightly less than crisp. The same mound of field greens dominates the plate, and three fried pasta straws come soaring like antennae out of the middle. (Pacifica is also big on antennae-like fried pasta straws as a plate garnish.) The shrimp's sauce, in particular, is notable. Almost a glaze in consistency, it packs a powerful punch of chili pepper that is instantly cooled by a generous helping of fresh mint. A tempura appetizer that comes across a little less impressively, however, is the Vegetable Tempura with a Soy-Ginger-Ponzu sauce ($6.75). A medley of vegetables, including julienned zucchini, carrots, and yellow squash, the tempura is served piled high in a bowl with a side dish of sauce that tastes mostly like soy. There's nothing really wrong with the dish, it just lacks a little vitality, coming across a lot like a fried vegetable basket at a more modest place, served with soy sauce instead of ranch dressing.
On the up side, two other appetizers warrant attention. The first is the Jumbo Lump Crab Cake with Wasabi Lime Aioli ($11.50), the other a Filo-Wrapped Puna Goat Cheese in a Scarlet Orange Sauce ($7.50). Although served with a sweet mango sauce when I sampled it, the Filo goat cheese triangles were delicious -- flaky outside and creamy inside, with an assertive goat flavor that stood up to the preparation and the sugary sauce. The crab cake combines lump crab meat with a colorful dice of bell peppers and a bit of onion, and comes admirably free of residual oil. The wasabi aioli adds a nice Asian touch to the classic American preparation, which wouldn't really shine on its own.
On to the big stuff, and it should be noted that the entrees at Pacifica are indeed big. Even if the restaurant's recipes hail from elsewhere, portions are definitely "Texas-sized," with fish servings especially large. Pacifica offers a Fresh Catch of the Day (Market Price) prepared either wok-seared, charbroiled, or steamed and served with one of four sauces: papaya lime vinaigrette, lemon aioli, pico de paradise, or garlic lemon grass. The dinner that left me less than satisfied with my food featured the catch of the day, which happened to be yellowfin tuna. I ordered the fish wok-seared with the garlic lemon grass sauce. Served alone, it would certainly have been passable, but the fish came piled atop cubes of roasted root vegetables -- celery root, carrot, and sweet potato -- a trio I associate more with roasted meats than wok-seared, Asian-flavored fish. I'm always ready to try out new taste combinations, so I dug into the dish relatively eagerly despite my obvious puzzlement at the mix. Quite frankly, the combination did not work. The vegetables tasted stronger than the fish and completely eclipsed the flavor of its delicate sauce, and the whole plate, with its monochrome yellowish color, failed to entice. The only effort made to dress up the dish (besides the fried pasta antennae as garnish) was a tower of two-toned rice. On another plate, the rice might have been a welcome addition, but added to the roasted root vegetables and the huge slab of fish, it seemed like just another thing to get around instead of something inviting to eat. Something green was needed, at least as a color diversion. Better in both flavor and appearance is Pacifica's Cocorita Scampi ($21), a pasta dish redolent of cumin and slightly sweet due to the addition of coconut butter. The menu description for the dish makes no mention of the cumin, mentioning instead tequila, lime, jalapeños, tomatoes, and cilantro. If you don't like cumin, the dish won't be a favorite, but those who appreciate the earthy flavor the spice imparts will love the preparation. Another winner is the Pacific Paella Stir Fry ($21), a decadently buttery take on Spain's popular rice dish that comes loaded with fish and shellfish (bay scallops, shrimp) in addition to moist bits of chicken and clusters of spicy chorizo. In addition to being rich, the dish was absolutely huge, big enough for two to share satisfyingly. Unlike classic paella, Pacifica's version offers an abundance of sauce and a light dose of saffron, and the rice in the dish assumes the role of an accent to the meats and seafood rather than the other way around.
One entree that I believe best sums up Pacifica's style is the Nori Sauteed Salmon ($22), a massive square of fish afloat in a dense ginger teriyaki sauce served over a slaw of Asian cabbages and pineapple and topped, curiously enough, by batons of candied ginger. The nori that gives the dish its name is actually only an inedible plate garnish, but the dish isn't lacking without it. To me, the dish hits on several of Pacifica's themes -- the nori for Japan, the pineapple for Hawaii, the ginger-teriyaki sauce on the sweet side like so many of the restaurant's sauces, and the addition of fruit to savory preparations as a kind of tropical signature.
Pacifica's menu does shift away from the tropical theme on occasion, with dishes like the Herb-Grilled New Zealand Lamb Chops ($26) served with a red wine au jus, or the Pan-seared Veal Loin Medallions served with plum wine porcini mushroom sauce and parmesan herb polenta ($26). Vegetarians aren't exactly well served, but there are a couple of options available as well as a chef's special prepared upon request.
Rumors have been rampant about Pacifica's lasting place in Austin's dining scene, and the restaurant did just go to a dinner-only setting, but on each of my visits, the restaurant had a decent crowd. Service at Pacifica swings from very attentive, with napkins laid across laps and water glasses refilled every quarter hour or more, to somewhat laissez-faire albeit friendly and obliging. By my observation, Austinites who live Northwest of MoPac seem to have adopted Pacifica as a welcome new place to stage both early family dinners and evenings out among friends or business contacts. Pacifica did just undergo a change in chef, with Keith Edwards now heading up the kitchen, but for now, the menu and food quality haven't budged. The test, of course, will be to keep folks coming in and not tiring of the tropical fare.
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