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RESTAURANT REVIEW OJAI VALLEY INN : Hold the Spikes : Try a burger on the terrace overlooking the golf course. The pricier fare could tee you off.

January 10, 1991|DAVID GOLDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Please," says a sign at the entrance to the Grill at the Ojai Valley Inn & Country Club, "No Spikes." Well, what else would you expect from a place that sits on the edge of a golf course, looking out through the oaks and across the course to the Topa Topa Bluffs? The Inn, a venerable institution to which out-of-town people have been flocking for years, is the Valley's only resort.

I don't play golf, I wasn't wearing spikes, but if I had been I could have gone into the adjoining bar, where the floors are wood. The question is, would I have wanted to? Despite the lovely terrace and the resort environment, the lunch menu at the Oak Grill & Terrace reminds me mostly of Denny's. And the quality is mixed.

The veal parmigiana, for instance, was withered inside its sauce to resemble a dried-out soy burger. But sitting right next to the veal on the plate was a fine herby linguine and a dish of sauteed cauliflower, squash and carrots, crisply cooked in a butter sauce.

Before that came a Caesar salad, quite large even in an appetizer portion, but so smothered in dressing that it was just too rich. On the other hand, the large salad of assorted lettuces in a creamy house dressing was wonderful and, at $3.50, probably the best value on the menu.

I'm always suspicious of menu items that bill themselves as "Our Famous . . . " If something is really famous, you don't need to brag about it. But the Oak Grill assures us that its mini burgers are famous. Two baby hamburgers arrived with french fries--too mealy to enjoy--and a carrot raisin salad. I loved the salad--I almost always do--and I discovered that the hamburgers were better than I'd expected. Small but not overcooked, they were layered with cheese and crisp bacon. The roast beef and Brie on pumpernickel was also good, the bread fresh and chewy, the cheese well-seasoned.

I can't say I was eager to try dinner at the Inn's Vista Dining Room because it shares both kitchen and chef with the Grill. This is a fixed-price operation, and if we'd stayed with just appetizers and desserts and ignored the fact that we were paying for a full meal, I think we'd have been pleased. The minestrone was rich and spicy, and the wild mushroom strudel, flavored with marjoram and served in a fine Madeira sauce, was a dish that offered an interesting texture and good flavors.

But the main dishes! I made the mistake of trying the veal again; the tenderloin was dry and flavorless, and the Parmesan cream sauce did little to help. The roast rack of lamb had a mealy texture and although the roasted garlic was nice, it wasn't nice enough to save the meal. The New York sirloin of beef was merely average--and it cost $27.50.

You have now heard half the menu.

The good news at the Ojai Valley Inn is that, after trying a very mediocre apple pie, I discovered that the Inn makes one of the best desserts I've been served in a long time. They call it a brownie with ice cream--but it's more than that. The kitchen bakes its own brownies--large, gooey ones--then tosses them with vanilla ice cream; they are layered together in such a way that the moistness of the ice cream and the chewiness of the brownie give one of those very sensual taste experiences. And there's plenty of it.

If you're eager for a resort experience and planning on eating at the Inn, I'd suggest you pick a sunny afternoon and opt for hamburgers, brownies and ice cream on the terrace. With or without spikes.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Oak Grill & Terrace and Vista Dining Room, Ojai Valley Inn & Country Club, Country Club Road, Ojai, (805) 646-5511. Grill open seven days for lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., dinner 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Vista open seven days for dinner 6 to 9:30 p.m. Reservations accepted in the Vista only. Full bar, major credit cards accepted. Lunch or dinner for two in the Grill, food only, $25 to $44. Dinner for two in the Vista Dining Room, food only, $55.

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