The California Grill, 67 Daily Drive (Las Posas Plaza), Camarillo (Las Posas exit off Highway 101), (805) 987-1922. Open for lunch Monday-Friday, for dinner nightly. Full bar. Free parking lot. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$50.
When I was growing up in Southern California a few years back, Camarillo was widely considered, fairly or not, to be just sort of a gray patch on the road between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara--a drab agricultural community where you'd never dream of stopping, unless you needed gas. If the town was known for anything at all, it was for the Camarillo State Hospital, a well-known mental facility, where Charlie Parker, among other luminaries, had done time--and the word Camarillo itself was sometimes used in jocular conversation as a kind of synecdoche to mean a place where crazy people went (as in, "Way he's actin', he's a candidate for Camarillo").
Well, things have changed in Camarillo. The town is thriving. Highway and byway alike are lined with new condominiums and shopping plazas, and there are even, believe it or not, some pretty good restaurants in the neighborhood. A single corner of one of those new shopping plazas, in fact, has three of them right next door to each other--Masa Sushi, a first-rate sushi bar; Charn, a good little Thai place which serves, among other things, spring rolls of unusual lightness and finesse, and an establishment called the California Grill--which is pretty much what it sounds like, but better.
I suppose there must be restaurants like the California Grill all over America today. Current culinary icons abound on the menu: field-green salad with Maytag blue cheese, carpaccio , sashimi, lamb sausage pizza, blackened catfish, pasta with pesto and so on. There are oysters from an oyster bar, located at one end of the (what else?) open kitchen. There are trendy California and even trendier Australian wines by the glass.
There is no particular originality here. New ground is not being broken nightly. What is going on is basically an example of gastronomic trickle-down, in which dishes created or popularized by master chefs in big-deal restaurants are reproduced or adapted elsewhere, in less glamorous venues and with varying degrees of success, by comparative apprentices.
Well, good. We can't all eat at Spago or Chez Panisse or K-Paul's every night, and there is nothing wrong with honest echoes of the food places of that stature prepare. And at the California Grill, those echoes seem particularly true.
I was mildly astonished (and very pleased) by my first meal at the place--a spur-of-the-moment solo dinner that consisted of one of those field-green salads, the greens varied and flavorful and no more than slightly bitter; the simple olive-oil-and-wine-vinegar dressing perfectly made and the cheese (I chose parmigiana instead of Maytag blue) fresh and genuine; a filet of that blackened catfish, which was moist and really black with a crisp, spicy crust, and an accompanying bouquet of sauteed baby vegetables, cooked just enough and absolutely delicious in themselves--especially the carrots, potatoes and, of all things, pint-sized kohlrabi. (This is local produce, I later learned, from Underwood Farms in Somis. Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck should know about this place.)
On subsequent visits, I was pleased by a simple presentation of ahi tuna sashimi , scrupulously fresh, with shredded daikon and a bit of cucumber salad; a superb special soup one evening, described as Oriental chicken--which sounded like a new Campbell's brand but turned out to be a rich, dark chicken broth with plenty of chicken and egg threads in it; by a simple, distinctly non-contemporary Maine lobster dinner, with the lobster steamed just long enough; with corn-on-the-cob and baked potato on the side (those local vegetables again!), and by a gooey lamb sausage pizza with black olives, red and yellow peppers and both blue and some variety of white cheese--though I must add that the crust tasted a bit sweet to me, and that the lamb was in the form of little scraps of meat and not anything resembling sausage.
Oysters were of good if not extraordinary quality. Fettuccine with smoked chicken and pesto, on the other hand, wasn't anything at all: If the chicken had been smoked, it must have been for about 30 seconds, and the pesto was just plain wimpy. A New York steak with tarragon mustard was about average, though the accompanying vegetables were as good as ever. The crispy roast duck with a molasses-and-black pepper crust was grossly overcooked. What should have been a pungent, peppery coating was bland and slightly bitter--and the shoestring yams that accompanied it, which I had assumed to be analogous to shoestring potatoes (i.e., thinly cut and fried), looked like carrot sticks and were weak in flavor. I must add that the espresso is quite possibly the worst I have ever tasted in any restaurant, anywhere.
The California Grill's decor doesn't match its menu in the slightest. Apart from a few pastel neon signs on the walls--"Pizza," "California Grill," etc.--the interior suggests some sort of suburban omelet parlor or steak house, with fake-antique paneling, brick-red indoor awnings, brass rails, a red carpet and artificial flowers and fern-bar plants. And the live piano-and-vocal music performed Tuesday through Saturday is more or less pop Muzak. (The regular clientele obviously loves it, however, and goes wild when the first chords of "Margaritaville" are sounded.)
The wine list is small but, as noted, offers plenty by the glass--and prices are reasonable. The (Australian) Roo's Leap Fume Blanc at $13, for instance, is a perfect foil for that blackened catfish.