by Lauren McAllister

From my table at Paprika, I could see the majestic bell tower of St. John's Cathedral as we awaited the arrival of our appetizers on a recent warm summer evening. It had seemed a shame to come indoors on such a lovely evening, but with pleasant classical music drifting through the dining room and the opportunity to watch the stone cathedral change colors with the setting sun, I settled in contentedly.

Since he had emerged victorious in two out of three games at Hoopfest earlier that day, I let my companion select our starter -- fresh roasted local porcini mushrooms with gremolata served over grilled toast ($8). These meaty mushrooms were a perfect foil for lots of fruity olive oil and roasted garlic. The slices of untoasted bread accompanying the plate were good, but the real treat was the toasted bread underneath the mushrooms -- crunchy and steeped in olive oil and garlic. The tangy gremolata -- a pesto-like blend of Italian parsley, lemon juice and garlic -- provided brightness and a taste of spring in this wonderful plate.

There are other intriguing appetizers, including a roasted artichoke stuffed with saffron-potato puree and topped with toasted bread crumbs ($7). For the less adventurous, there's a creative take on the classic fresh mozzarella/tomato/basil combo, with the mozzarella on skewers and the basil turned into pesto ($7).

When picking a salad, like a greedy child, I always try to pick the one with the most ingredients. Still, if not selected carefully, a melange of different tastes and textures can end up a jarring mess, without symmetry of tastes and with one ingredient overly dominant. At Paprika, the salad that met my criteria was the grilled asparagus with greens, strawberries, oranges, walnuts, goat cheese and kalamata olives ($8). Now, after reading this list of ingredients, you can very nearly make this salad on your own -- but would you ever have thought of this combination? And a lovely combination it is. The quality of each ingredient was impeccable, and the melding of the cool fresh strawberries and oranges with the toasted walnuts and still warm grilled asparagus, with the sublime addition of creamy goat cheese, all enveloped in a sweet tangy vinaigrette, was simply perfect. The kalamata olives were, in my opinion, superfluous, but I truly think I could eat this salad every day for the entire summer and not tire of it.

Entrees at Paprika are just as creative as the "first plate" options. Grilled lamb brochettes ($20) with figs and mint sauce sounded good, as did the poached wild King salmon with capers and salmon caviar ($21). My companion almost went for the roasted halibut fillet with Asian slaw ($21), but instead selected the seared pepper crusted ahi tuna ($22). A nice slab of tuna was teamed up with horseradish mashed potatoes, grilled onions and a fresh tomato vinaigrette. The tuna had a lovely flavor, and the mashed potatoes had a pleasant but not overwhelming horseradish tang. The fresh tomatoes in a lightly sweet vinaigrette were a nice counterpoint in both texture and flavor.

I opted for the roasted spring chicken with morel mushrooms ($19). This dish is perhaps best explained in musical terms. The roasted chicken, moist and flavorful, was like a well-loved melody, not particularly inventive but comfortable and pleasant. Interest was added via a new harmony, here taking the form of the fresh verdant flavors of spring peas and crisp snap peas, along with baby carrots -- real ones, with the trimmed tops still on, not the peeled-and-cut-up in-the-bag kind. And last, the booming bass notes of local morel mushrooms added drama and a certain sexiness to this take on a classic comfort food combo. Mmm mmm good.

As the setting sun lent a fiery glow to the cathedral, I feared dessert would surely be a letdown after three wonderful courses. My companion chose the rosemary cake with strawberry ice cream and strawberry sauce ($6). This was a creative update of strawberry shortcake. The rosemary cake was more savory than sweet, while a light crunch of cornmeal made an interesting pairing with the sweet strawberries. I was completely enamoured of my choice, however: a pudding cake with rhubarb sauce ($6). The tart rhubarb surrounded a rich and dense cake, with a teasing sweet mint syrup drizzled around the plate. As with so many items on Paprika's menu, I wouldn't have thought of pairing mint and rhubarb, but it turns out to be a wonderfully refreshing combination.

Chef Karla Graves' unerring command of ingredients is truly a treasure. And Paprika offers a wonderful way to experience her cuisine at very affordable prices Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings from 5 pm to 7:30 pm. That's when you can sample one-third-sized portions of a total of four first plates and entrees for $22 to $30 per person, depending on how many first plates and entrees you select. That's right, if you don't mind sharing bites from your plate, you and a friend could try a total of six first plates and two entrees for just $44, or two first plates and six -- count 'em, six -- entrees for $60. The only request is that your whole table order on the "bite nite" plan, but each person can make his or her own selections and tables of up to six people can be accommodated.

Graves and her husband and business partner Larry Graves are taking a brief summer vacation but will re-open on July 8 at 5 pm.

Publication date: 07/03/03

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