SEASIDE - John Nelson, an unpretentious self-proclaimed food junkie, was becoming antsy. He and his wife Jennifer had closed their well-received Cannon Beach dinner house Kalypso at the end of 2002, and Nelson couldn't get comfortable without toiling in the kitchen every evening. Half a year had passed - eons in restaurant time - and he was eager to showcase his ample culinary talent (honed at The Sanctuary in Chinook, Wash.) for the public once again.
Nelson's lengthy respite from cooking was worth it, however, because the long-awaited new version of Kalypso, this one in Seaside and more bistro-like than upscale, is a stunner. "I've tried to create a comfort zone for people, in the menu and where they dine," Nelson says. He and Jennifer employ a strategy being promoted by a handful of successful new area eateries that goes something like this: Scale down the prices but not the portions or the culinary creativity; then concentrate on serving imaginative renditions of old standbys using the freshest local fixings.
Sounds simple, but not many eateries can boast consistently excellent meals enhanced by moderately priced wines. Kalypso can, even after only six weeks in business.
Rotisserie chicken, fowl usually confined to supermarkets and convenience stores, is an A-plus execution of the above game plan. Rest assured you won't find the Kalypso version - crispy skinned and infused with apple and citrus juices - in Safeway or 7-Eleven. Comforting cornbread stuffing pairs with the chicken like a burger with fries.
Speaking of which, Kalypso's half-pound steak burger tucked into a house-baked bun is an instant classic. No secrets here - just a well-seasoned hunk of beef garnished with caramelized onions and rashers of bacon, then spread with a horseradish-thousand island sauce. Accompanying fries (also available as a pommes frites appetizer) are fresh and crispy, but almost too dainty compared to this double-fisted monstrosity that requires at least two napkins while devouring. Another fine way to enjoy spuds is a side of Nelson's signature crushed, rather than mashed, potatoes amply fortified with browned butter.
Dining here, you get the impression a number of Nelson's concoctions could become "signature" and wildly popular. For instance, a lovely linguine well-stocked with shrimp and mildly spicy andouille sausage. This nourishing meal comes tossed in a tomato-clam broth sweetened by bits of carrot, simple but effective flavor enhancers. Clam linguine is doused in a delightful cirtrus-clam reduction.
Salmon and halibut skewers washed with a tomato-fennel sauce scores even higher on the seafood-lover's scale. Oddly, a filet of salmon served solo spent a tad too much time on the grill, as did the ample portion of seared ahi gracing an otherwise-stellar albacore salad dressed with a sweet chili-citrus vinaigrette. Chesapeake soft shell crab, a recent special that doesn't appear on many area restaurant menus, came bathed in yet another top-drawer Kalypso concoction - tomato-corn salsa. Tiny slices of green and orange tomatoes lended texture and additional visual appeal.
Kalypso's roomy interior (the dining rooms seats 96) was decorated by Jennifer Nelson, and it's an eye-catcher. A high open ceiling showing exposed duct work and hung with attractive metal light fixtures and overhead fans is anchored by big honkin' clear-grain fir beams joined with massive hardware. The effect is industrial chic meets old growth inside a structure Nelson says dates to about 1919. Walls are either colored in soft earth tones or painted with murals by Cannon Beach artist Susie Pastor. Tasseled curtains adorn the windows. A small bar with a few stools fills a back corner raised a few feet above the fray.
When crowded, the place is an exuberant scene, a high-energy chatterbox sporting a mixed clientele - so far everybody from infatuated couples to families. Scurrying efficient servers keep the intensity in check, and the din is more concordant than distracting.
What may divert your attention, however, is one of Kalypso's alluring desserts. Like the rest of the menu, these treats tend toward accomplished interpretations of celebrated goodies - say yummy chocolate tortes, fruit cobblers capped with a tasty cookie crust or Swedish cream crowned with strawberry puree. Ultra-moist and crunchy (thanks to toasted coconut) coconut cake graced with caramel sauce and paired with vanilla ice cream enters the realm of scrumptious.
Luckily Jennifer Nelson is managing the dining room and creating the desserts, so hard-working hubby John can spend much of his time ensconced in the Kalypso kitchen. It's the place he most wants to be.
Contact the Mouth at The Daily Astorian, P.O. Box 210, Astoria, OR 97103 or phone (503) 325-3211 or e-mail email@example.com
619 Broadway, Seaside; (503)738-6302
Hours: 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 5 to 10 p.m. Fri, Sat; 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday
Prices: Moderate to expensive. Starters cost $4 to $12.50, entrees (which come with a house salad) $9.95 to $24.95, desserts $5 to $6.50. Two could dine for about $75, including desserts, tip and a bottle of less-expensive wine.
Superior selections: Shrimp and andouille pasta, rotisserie chicken, baby back ribs, salmon and halibut skewers, steak burger, Swedish cream, coconut cake
Atmosphere: High ceilings and lots of tables in an attractively decorated spacious dining room housed in a former drug store.
Service: Casual and professional
Kid-friendly: Yes. A fish fry, a burger and creamy noodles are available for youngsters, and servers are accommodating.
Vegetarian options: Currently, vegetarian pasta.
Alcohol: Full bar. The modest wine list is moderately priced and shows good range.
Access: The entrance and restrooms are accessible to customers in wheelchairs.
Credit cards: Diner's Club, Discover, Mastercard, Visa
Personal checks: Accepted
Reservations: Recommended, but not necessary
Smoking: Not permitted
Key to ratings:
1 star: average
2 stars: good
3 stars: excellent
4 stars: outstanding, the best in the Columbia-Pacific Region