Pacific Rim Job

Photo by Patricia InsheiwatI stumbled upon Duke's restaurant in Malibu years ago (it couldn't have been more than four years ago because that's how long it's been there and because of my, you know, short-term-memory thing). I recall the casual atmosphere, killer view of the breaking surf, and a nice hunk of swordfish brushed in a mango sauce that was surprisingly good, considering I had no idea what to expect when I walked in the door. I always hoped to go back, but hell, who wants to drive to Malibu?

So when I heard Duke's was opening in Huntington Beach a couple of summers ago, I was down with it. Yes, it's next to the pier, on the beach side of Pacific Coast Highway, where legions of us would prefer zero development sullying the sand. But this is pro-business-at-all-costs Huntington Beach, and a restaurant is going to be there no matter how hard we wish it weren't so. It might as well be a good one.

That's a lock thanks to general manager Brett Barnes and executive chef David Baumann, two young, athletic, energetic types who've done stints with Duke's in Malibu (the only other mainland spot) and the chain's home base in Hawaii. Barnes and Baumann have created a place where everyone—from surfers in damp trunks to families celebrating special occasions—feels welcome.

To keep them coming back for more, Baumann recently introduced a slew of new, moderately priced menu items that should have seafood lovers everywhere clamoring for tables under the old surf photos and wooden longboards on the walls. He explained that after joining the Malibu site in experimenting with California cuisine, his Duke's has decided to stick with dishes influenced by the Islands and the Pacific Rim.

To start things off, you can't go wrong with the sashimi of ahi tuna, Daikon radish and pickled ginger with wasabi (market price) or spicy sugar-cane shrimp with sweet Thai chili beurre blanc and tropical salsa ($8.95) as appetizers. With a few glasses of wine, you could quit right there and be satisfied. But what fun would that be?

Two of Duke's salads are quite refreshing. The crispy wonton salad with fresh California greens in a mango-cilantro vinaigrette ($3.95) leaves you with that same “light” feeling you have after eating a weight-loss dish—without the uncomfortable feeling that your innards have gone to work on a piece of cardboard. For a heartier take, try the hearts-of-palm-and-papaya salad with candied cashews and a mango-chutney vinaigrette ($4.95).

The seven-spice seared ahi tuna with papaya hot mustard over pickled bok choy (market price) is an entrée that packs a spicy wallop. The fresh fish two ways had a'u—a swordfish caught off Fiji—crusted with lemongrass and lemon beurre blanc, then boiled with Chinese black-bean sauce. It comes with wasabi ribbons and soba-noodle salad (market price). It was my favorite main dish of the night—until I sampled the island-style ciopinno ($19.95). Sort of a fresh Hawaiian fish bouillabaisse, the tomato-herb stock is so thick that the ciopinno is served on a plate instead of in a bowl. The thought of that fresh and savory sauce is still dancing in my head—you'll search for something else to swab it up with should any be left on your plate after scarfing the tender chunks of whitefish.

For dessert, the coconut-almond tart with chocolate ganache ($5.95) tastes like a Mounds bar. The fresh cheesecake with guava-strawberry purée and fresh berries ($4.95), which comes direct from the Proof Is in the Pudding Bakery in San Diego, is light and refreshing. But if you have no qualms about letting out another notch in the belt, go for Kimo's Famous Hula Pie with hot fudge and macadamia nuts ($4.95). The only words that can possibly describe it are “Oh. My. God!”

When Barnes isn't busy running the place, he indulges his first love: building Duke's wine list. In addition to the usual suspects, there's “Brett's Private Stock.” Do yourself a favor and investigate his selections. If he's around, he'll happily tell you which wines go best with which dishes. Aloha!

DUKE'S HUNTINGTON BEACH, LOCATED AT 317 PACIFIC COAST HWY., HUNTINGTON BEACH, IS OPEN MON., 5-10 P.M.; TUES.-THURS., 11:30 A.M.-2:30 P.M. N 5-10 P.M.; FRI., 11:30 A.M.-2:30 P.M. N 5-10:30 P.M.; SAT., 11:30 A.M.-2:30 P.M. N 4:30-10:30 P.M.; SUN., 10 A.M.-2 P.M. (BRUNCH) N 4:30-10 P.M. (714) 374-6446. DINNER FOR TWO, $20-$50, FOOD ONLY. FULL BAR. ALL MAJOR CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED.

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