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RESTAURANT REVIEW THE SHOALS : Shoal Food : The menu changes weekly at this highway-hugging landmark. And save room for the banana reef dessert.

May 16, 1991|HILARY DOLE KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Driving up the coast toward Santa Barbara, you could easily miss Mussel Shoals just by blinking at the wrong time. But don't overlook the restaurant tucked away in the '40s-built motel called the Cliff House. For years, I felt sorry for the place as I whizzed by. It seemed to cling so precariously to the edge of the highway, and it looked so frumpy.

Over the past few years, the motel has been spruced up considerably, and colored flags wave valiantly from the its rooftop. Still, it's hard to imagine that anything built so close to the highway could be worth a stop. Then you enter the building and gasp with surprise.

Perched on a lip of land overlooking the ocean, it is possibly one of the most stunning locations for a restaurant (and a romantic weekend) of any place along the coast.

Located on the ground floor of the three-story inn, the restaurant has a rapturous view of stately old palm trees, a lovely, turquoise, 60-foot swimming pool and the foamy surf beyond. I like coming here early in the evening to watch the light changing on the water and catch the spectacular sunset.

You might think the owners would be tempted to let the vista lure in customers and forget about the food. But they don't. The food is worth pulling off the highway for, even without the view.

They devise an entirely new menu every week. The exception is their famous dessert, the banana reef--but more about that later. Although they keep the menu fairly simple, with only a few appetizers and half a dozen entrees, they manage to offer an interesting variety of fish, chicken, lamb, filet mignon and pasta, all prepared with distinctive sauces.

A rousingly robust oyster stew ($6.95) contained bits of spinach, onions, garlic twists and big, succulent oysters. It surpassed the tomato minestrone, which had the odd sweetness of borscht. If they have them, be sure to order the mussels. We had a mound of them cooked in a broth flavored with wine, tarragon and onion. This broth could be served quite respectably without the mussels--good as they were.

Dinner salads were made up of perfectly acceptable ingredients, although the dressings were a bit meek. I'd recommend going with their Caesar dressing.

Cilantro linguine ($13.95) was a great idea. It had myriad tiny bay scallops and bits of fresh tomato. A stunning piece of salmon was so perfect that it didn't even need the lemony sauce, which was just delicate enough not to interfere with the flavor of the fish.

Filet mignon ($16.95), tender as butter, came with a Madeira cream sauce jumping with cracked pepper. It also had lovely scalloped potatoes made with Cheddar cheese. A stir-fried medley of seven or eight julienne vegetables had the consistency of pasta al dente and the vibrant colors of a Gauguin canvas.

With food like this, it's easy to finish every lick on the plate, but save room for the banana reef dessert. They usually make it with La Conchita bananas grown nearby. The sweet bananas have been slightly cooked and they're served in a soup of partially melted ice cream, so the dish is both warm and cold. It also comes with pieces of candy/cookie that taste like the carmelized sugar on creme brulee.

The Cliff House is owned by the Porter family who run it themselves--which shows; the service is particularly attentive and considerate.

* WHERE AND WHEN

The Shoals at the Cliff House, 6602, W. Pacific Coast Highway, Mussel Shoals, 684-0025. Dinner reservations 5 to 8:30 p.m. Wine and beer, parking lot, most major credit cards, dinner for two, food only $40 to $65.

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