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RESTAURANT REVIEW PIER FISH HOUSE : Reasons to Hope : Terrific seafood chowder, cheesecake and swordfish sandwiches. And a great view.

December 27, 1990|DAVID GOLDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It has great views and the atmosphere is sort of 1950s cozy and the people who serve you are cordial and professional. Which is why I wanted the food at the Pier Fish House to be better--better than it really is.

So I kept going back. It's situated at the foot of the Ventura Fishing Pier and in the daytime, no matter where you're sitting--inside or outside on the sheltered deck--you have a great view. In one direction you can watch the volleyball games taking place on the sand; in the other you can watch the surfers testing the waters. It's such a really good-feeling place to spend an afternoon--or an evening--that I thought it might be worth spending time trying to find the best dishes on the menu. And there are a few.

But I should have known it wouldn't be easy. When a place has been around since 1952 (although the present operators have run it for only the past 10 years), and you find yourself almost alone on a Saturday night . . . There it was, the prime dinner hour, and we were almost the only ones watching that incredible view of lights glistening up and down the coast.

Until this particular evening, the meals on the pier had been about 50-50. The fried calamari rings and chips for lunch one day had been tough--definitely on the down side of the difference between tough and chewy--even the breading was without distinction. On another day the swordfish sandwich, about three-quarters of an inch thick, was obviously fresh, and the only problem in eating this juicy, perfectly cooked version was to keep it from falling apart in your hands. The fries with it were, unfortunately, the mealy sort.

There also turned out to be a dichotomy in the soups. The New England clam chowder was so clumsily thickened that it was filled with unpleasant little globs of flour. But the zesty seafood soup was another sort of chowder--tomato-based and filled with fresh fish and fresh vegetables. It's the perfect thing for these cold days.

Every time I have a good dish here I get hopeful--and then my hopes are dashed. One night I went for broke and ordered something called the Captain's Combo; at $21.95 it is far and away the most ambitious listing. Billed as "4 prawns, 4 scallops, 4 calamari strips and 4 oz. cod," it comes either broiled or "deep-fried to perfection." I chose broiled--and discovered that the perfection part must be reserved for the fried version. There was plenty on those two skewers, but it looked as if they had been broiled all together, all at once--and all too long. I wasn't very impressed by the "spicy" Mexican prawn cocktail that preceded the combo either. There was plenty of it--but the name was somewhat deceptive. I liked the tomatoey sauce with its interestingly crunchy quality, but it turned out to contain very little spice. Worse, the cocktail was only about a third Mexican prawns--the other two-thirds were those little bay shrimp, which a dedicated shrimp lover like myself can do without. On the other hand, I was very pleased with another appetizer, a dish of mushrooms sauteed in wine and garlic; it turned out to be one of the dishes worth ordering here.

Other dishes worth ordering? All of the desserts. When I was told that they were made by one of the waitresses, I couldn't help thinking that perhaps they should ask her to do the fish too. In any case, her Dutch apple cheesecake is worth a trip to the pier. The word "chewy" is appropriate, as it is for the plain cheesecake--a sort of New York-style model flooded with a boysenberry sauce, crammed with berries and very worthwhile.

Seafood chowder, a swordfish sandwich, terrific cheesecake. . . and a great view. On top of that, the Fish Pier House has Heineken's on tap.

WHERE AND WHEN

The Fish Pier House, Ventura Fishing Pier, 643-4825. Open Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Major credit cards accepted, reservations accepted. Beer and wine only. Lunch for two, food only, $18 to $30. Dinner for two, food only, $30 to $50.

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