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RESTAURANT REVIEW : CALIFORNIA GRILL : Lukewarm : 'American regional' eatery offers pleasant ambience--but only so-so cuisine.

May 10, 1990|DAVID GOLDMAN

Maybe I just should have made a run for it when the waitress gave me a menu labeled February. We both knew it was April.

Or when the sourdough bread she told me to enjoy wasn't sourdough. On the other hand, it was good bread, heavy and thick and obviously baked on the premises, served with nice, big slabs of butter. And Louis Armstrong's music was playing in the background, not the Hit Parade numbers but the classics.

That's what California Grill is like--seductive. When you walk in you find an attractive dining area facing an especially glittering bar, crammed with what looks like every liquor you could ever imagine. There is a separate piece of literature on the tables boasting of the bar's selections, such as the new Tanqueray Sterling vodka or Stolichnaya Cristall.

The place just makes you feel good, and I wanted to like it. Once in a while I did. The oregano fettuccine with smoked chicken, asparagus and mushrooms had a zesty white wine and cheese sauce I still enjoy thinking about.

But California Grill lets you down over and over. Though it bills its food as "American regional cuisine," it also specializes in pizzas, and not very good ones. Their crust has a starchy, mass-produced taste, covered mostly with nondescript cheese.

The menu does boast an American regional specialty, fresh stone crabs; to be precise, fresh crabs from Joe's Stone Crab Restaurant in Miami Beach. Joe's is about as good as you can get in stone crabs, but the crabs apparently don't travel well. By the time they're served in Camarillo, they lack the crisp meatiness that is so much of stone crab's attraction.

On one visit, a couple of us ordered duck and chicken selections. Sorry, no fowl that day. Any reason? No, not particularly. On one occasion the sea bass we'd ordered arrived overcooked, after we'd specifically asked the waiter to tell the kitchen to avoid exactly that. But the vegetables on the side, the carrots and potatoes, were wonderful, beautifully seasoned and roasted, and it was a lovely treat to find sweet roasted fennel bulbs among them.

In the rear of California Grill there's a tapas bar, redefining American regional cuisine by doubling as an oyster bar. My baked oysters in a cheese sauce might be either oyster bar or tapas stuff, I suppose, but they were certainly bland. The chicken breast " tapa " I had one day redefined Spanish cookery by being marinated in lime and that famous Spanish flavor combination, soy sauce and ginger. Somehow, even that marinade added no flavor.

The tapas bar did favor us with a show, however. In front of us on the other side of the bar, a counter worker busily engaged in tearing at the carcass of a raw chicken with his bare hands as we tried to eat.

Still, the service at the tapas and/or oyster bar was cordial and professional. But in the dining room one time, a waiter stood just a few feet away from us for more than 10 minutes after we finished our meal, gazing serenely at our obviously finished plates. I actually had to ask him to get rid of them.

Even the bar, well-stocked though it is, is a disappointment, pouring rather stingy drinks. Some of my very favorite restaurants are in shopping centers, as this one is, and I dearly wish the California Grill could figure out a way to make everything else as good as its bread.

California Grill, 67 Daily Drive, Camarillo. (805) 987-1922. Open for lunch Monday through Friday 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner Monday through Thursday 5-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5-11 p.m. Full bar, reservations accepted. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner or lunch for two, food only, $40-$50.

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