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Cabezons menu a stew of tasty, odd combos

Bread and Brew
by: L.E. BASKOW, Cabezon is a new seafood restaurant in the Hollywood district selling fish from a front counter during the day, then turning into a nighttime neighborhood bistro.

A cabezon is a spiky, angry-looking Pacific predator fish. It's not the fish I would name my seafood restaurant after, but what do I know? I also could never make cioppino as well as they do at Cabezon, which opened in December 2009 on a sidestreet spur off Northeast Sandy Boulevard.

During the day, the place sells fresh fish from a small case in front. At night, it morphs into a semi-high end neighborhood bistro, specializing in seafood but also providing a safety net of mac and cheese and hangar steak with potatoes.

On my first visit, I was impressed with the cioppino. Many otherwise competent restaurants struggle with this traditional fish stew of the San Francisco fishermen. There's a certain knack to creating a broth that doesn't clash with some part of the mix of fish and shellfish in the soup, each of which, moreover, has a different ideal cooking time.

Cabezon has it mostly figured out. The broth had a rich, full, spicy tomato flavor that tied everything else together: succulent gulf shrimp (not from the Pacific, obviously, but that's OK), mussels, clams, squid and locally caught cod. In addition, there was a big, meaty Dungeness crab leg lurking under a clump of aioli topped with toasted bread. My only complaint is that the squid was extremely chewy, and the clams could have been a little bit fatter.

Another night, clams in a pasta dish were much more full-figured. The pasta was buccatini, a thick round noodle that here had a good, springy texture. The dish was flavored with unstinting amounts of garlic and parsley, and was part of the weekly Monday night pasta special. For $5 more we could have added a Caesar salad and dessert.

Instead, we started with blinis. These little warm pancakes were topped with crème fraiche and salty, bright orange trout eggs. We also had a bibb lettuce salad in a creamy, pungent dressing flavored with a mild blue cheese. The salad also had candied pecans and wispy, crispy fried shallots. Each of these toppings was good on its own, but as a combination, especially with the dressing, they were a little weird.

There was a similar issue with the salmon. The salmon itself, from Neah Bay, Wash., was pink and fresh, and cooked perfectly to the split second between under- and overdone. This type of sourcing and expert timing is why we go to seafood restaurants.

But the rest of the plate seemed more for appearance than taste. The fish sat on a pile of tender black lentils, ringed with a wide, brilliant green circle of rather bitter arugula pesto. On top of the salmon was a composition of green mache leaves and small pink disks of pickled radish. It was a pretty mix of colors, but the different flavors didn't seem to have anything to do with each other.

Dessert was a different story. The warm strawberry-rhubarb cobbler was covered with unsightly knobs of delicious crunchy crust. A scoop of ice cream, topped with a little caramel sauce, was melting all over it. It didn't look like much, but it won us over.

Cabezon, dinner 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, closed Sunday, 5200 N.E. Sacramento St., 503-284-6617, www.cabezonrestaurant.com, entrees $15-$20

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