It used to be that when I walked in the Red Pepper I'd try not to look at the white board near the hostess stand where that night's specials were listed. I'd do this because I usually had in mind what I craved off the excellent menu, and I knew that whatever was on that white board would be something even more satisfying, inventive and distracting. After all, some of the regular menu items -- such as the marvelous lobster chile verde -- started out on the board, becoming regulars due to customer demand.
But now it's even worse.
There's an insert to the menu that lists 11 dinner specials, including the aforementioned lobster creation. That's in addition to two other lists of specials on the menu. Which brings up today's column, devoted as it is to the special insert items, as tempting as the regular menu and white board creations may be.
What it really comes down to is an observation my companion made during our most recent visit: Red Pepper is really two different restaurants. People at tables near us were eating enchiladas, taco plates and more conventional Mexican fare. But the list of 11 creations on that menu insert are something that could be served in a restaurant in Napa Valley, West Hollywood or San Francisco. They were, in short, amazing -- further proof of co-owner/chef Gilbert Sabedra's restless desire to stretch his cuisine in new and varied international directions.
You just can't go wrong at this restaurant.
One thing we didn't order -- the chile en Nogad'a ($14.95) -- is a dish so amazing that my brother-in-law hired the restaurant's catering department to prepare it for his birthday party. Displaying the colors of the Mexican flag, the entree was first made in Mexico to celebrate Independence Day. A roasted poblano chili is stuffed with pine nuts, raisins, ground beef, onions and garlic, then topped with a creamy walnut sauce and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds.
I have seldom in my life sampled such an intriguing mixture of tastes and textures, every bite startling and different and something you'll remember with fondness occasionally. I understand his affection for the marvelous concoction, but be warned -- it will inspire cravings for the rest of your life. Every bite is different and irresistible.
I was strong, and didn't order that or any of the other creations we'd enjoyed in the past, such as the macadamia nut-crusted mahi mahi with chile-coconut butter sauce ($22), the pineapple-influenced chicken mole enchiladas ($16.95), and the pollo Santa Fe ($17.95). Finalists that fell short included the braised short ribs in adobo and chipotle ($24.95, made with a red wine sauce), the tequila salmon ($20, pan-roasted with a olive oil-garlic-butter sauce) and the walnut-crusted sea bass Acapulco ($25, with a jalapeno cream sauce that is amazing).
We finally settled on the Mi Amigo Jackson's Rack of Lamb ($31.50), and my companion's choice, the Sand Dabs El Cortez ($19.50).
The latter choice was motivated in part by a chance to compare them to the excellent but simple and buttery version served at Uricchio's downtown. Here they are sauteed in olive oil and butter, then presented on a poblano potato cake that is best described as pureed potatoes that have been fried on the bottom until a nice brown crust forms. After that, a nearly perfect caper-lemon-red peppers-mushrooms-jalapeno sauce was poured over it.
My companion noted that with all the white on the plate, the fish and potatoes seemed to blend together. I appreciated the typical graceful use of the jalapenos in the sauce. Both dinners were served with fresh asparagus spears.
After I sampled my lamb, I had to steady myself. It ranks with a simple but legendary lamb I enjoyed at the Coachlight Inn nearly three decades ago, so perfect, so amazing, so begging for a glass of cabernet from the marvelous Central Coast wine list Red Pepper has assembled (try the Halter Ranch cab from Paso Robles, $10).
The five thick chops are grilled over an open fire and served with a startling sauce made from feta cheese, garlic and jalapenos.
The lamb is completely different without the sauce, as I sampled one of the dry portions. The sauce just elevated it, and I think the key was the feta, a cheese that can be a creamy, bland presence; but here it lets the perfectly proportioned garlic and jalapeno carry the day. I had the same potato cake below the chops, which were stunning with this sauce.
Great. Another amazing creation that I'll crave every few weeks. That's what happens if you go here too often and aren't disciplined enough not to get distracted by the new and different.
I do have one complaint. My companion ordered a salad instead of the albondigas or tortilla soups, both of which are simple and satisfying. The greens were ordinary to the nth degree. Stick with the soup. No creative energy is expended on the salads.
Service was excellent, though we've had some visits in the past with spotty attention. Our smiling young waiter was there when we needed him to be, absent so we could converse at other times.
Red Pepper Restaurant can be recommended for a fine dining experience. Something to dish?
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