by Karen Dachey
One of the Peninsula's best-known waterfront restaurants, Clark's by the Bay, has been bought by the Italian owners of San Francisco's Cafe Tiramisu and rechristened La Rotunda Sul Mare. In addition to the fancy new name, the changeover has brought an outdoor patio, an Italian-accented menu and smaller portions than I remember Clark's having the "chic" to serve. The upstairs banquet room has been remodeled, but the cavernous 250-seat main dining room, cool and dark despite the bank of bay-facing windows, remains decorated in the would-be clubby style of an upscale chain restaurant (yards of brass railing, sludgy color scheme).
Slow food service can make for a hefty drinks bill. Before our appetizers arrived one Saturday evening we managed to consume (at decorous sipping pace, please note) not only our cocktails, but most of a bottle of Pinot Grigio ($18 for a Tiefenbrunner '94).
The wait was worthwhile in that an entree-sized fricassee of mussels and clams with garlic toast ($10.95) was quite superb, spiced as it was with a fabulous garlic and tomato broth. The clams tasted piquant, the mussels slightly sweet. The smoked scallops set atop a spinach salad dressed with red pepper pesto ($9.50) were similarly well prepared. And although the oily pesto was pungent enough to have overwhelmed a less assertive green, my satisfied friend gamely pointed out that "it takes more than this to defeat spinach." A lively balsamic dressing was the perfect partner for my own salad choice: deep-flavored marinated tomato slices and smoky-tasting grilled portobello mushrooms on red leaf lettuce ($8.50).
Perhaps figuring that we'd been sitting down long enough to have gotten through a multi-course dinner, a busboy checked to see if we'd be eating anything more. On sharing our hopes with him, he cleared the table. It was with some difficulty that we managed to get the necessary cutlery replaced, and then only after the waiter eventually brought our entrees, striking out on all three in terms of placement.
Having played pass-the-parcel with the plates, I found that there was far less to my grilled "colossal prawns" ($17.50) than I had expected. If you're watching your weight, this is the dish to order. All that picking through the coral-pink shells to extract a few precious bites of sweet, lobster-like meat is time-consuming and hardly at all calorific; furthermore, no drawn butter is on hand to encourage bread-dunking. The vinaigrette for the accompanying mixed green salad poses potential danger but can come on the side and tastes dull enough to be left there.
The demolition of an entire rack of lamb ($18.25) might sound like the very definition of gluttony, but La Rotunda follows Italian custom in favoring Lilliputian cutlets, elegantly arranged. Probably weighing in total about 1/3 of a pound, the meat had been successfully roasted to the point of rosy pink tenderness, its fine flavor enhanced by a robust Barola-based gravy. Spinach paired with subtly garlicked, slightly sticky, mashed potatoes mounded the center of the plate.
Garlic mashed potatoes also accompanied a crisp-skinned, juicy chicken breast ($12.50). Although the grilled asparagus mentioned in the listing turned out to be nothing more than two limp spears tossed on top as if as an afterthought, a fragrant mushroom "jus" made a delectable contribution.
Several dishes reappear on the lunch menu, with appetizer prices running much lower than at dinner. We found service to be equally polite but unpolished--pretension overriding common sense. Once again we were solemnly presented with the cork from our chosen bottle of non-vintage white wine. Once again we had to ask for an ice bucket. The goodish bread (which comes with a pot of tasty garlic butter) was not replaced, and neither wine nor water glasses refilled. This time, however, there was no lengthy wait for orders to arrive. With almost indecent haste, my spinach and ricotta ravioli ($10.50) appeared along with my guest's choice of poached salmon ($13.50), a special of the day.
The blandly filled pasta discs were scattered with shavings of Parmesan and "wild" mushrooms tamed to the point of tastelessness. Slivers of asparagus added nothing more than color to the dish. My friend's salmon fillet fought a valiant battle with the sweet veal stock reduction in which it was masked--and lost. Although crab was mentioned in the listing, it was not evident on the plate. The most pronounced flavor besides the almost caramelized sauce was that of salty pancetta flecking the accompanying whipped potatoes. Basil strips, baby yellow tomatoes and a trio of asparagus spears provided prettiness.
Flourless chocolate cake headed the dessert menu, and it must have been very good or very small.
Less than an hour after the restaurant had opened, none was available. Other dessert possibilities, all of which we skipped, included tiramisu, creme brulee and various gelatos.
So is it worth the short drive up the 101 to take a chance on getting a satisfying meal and a pleasant view? Until service and value-for-money improve, I suggest the risk is best taken by those with flexible schedules and freely accessible expense accounts.
La Rotunda Sul Mare, 487 Seaport Court, Redwood City, 367-9222
Hours: Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner Mon.-Thurs. 5:30 p.m.-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m.; brunch Sun. 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Atmosphere: Non-Italian waitstaff and smart but characterless interior detract from the Mediterranean influence; this still feels like a generic American restaurant overlooking not so much a mare as what Dwight Clark was content to call the Bay.
Highlights: Pretty marina location with superb waterfront views; jazz combo or pianist in evenings; despite inconsistencies, some terrific tasting food
About the owners: Co-owner and principal chef Pino Spinosa, a 25-year veteran of the business, was born in Italy and trained in Germany. Roger Dioli is a U.S.-born Italian citizen with 11 years' restaurant management experience, mostly catering for major sporting arenas. They own three other restaurants and opened La Rotunda in March with a view to providing hearty Italian "comfort food." Reservations: yes
credit cards: yes
full bar: yes
wheelchair access: yes
outdoor seating: yes
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