"I give this a thumbs up," exclaimed the Critical Companion, "for authenticity, and certainly for its food."
It is not always that the CC and I agree. In fact, I must concede that some of our most vigorous moments are in those exciting disagreements--so many of which occur while we're sitting at a restaurant table, in public, with plates of food in front of us.
But in this case, I was forced to bow to greater authority. The CC, after all, had been born, and occasionally raised, on the Eastern seaboard. And here at Tucks Point in Ventura, we're talking New England seafood. Not, you understand, that I disagreed. Although I have to take her word as to the menu's authenticity--my own experience of classic New England seafood in its home environment being a bit limited--I was absolutely in agreement as to its quality. Give this eight out of 10 points. For good reason. It seems that Frank Annichiarico, the restaurant proprietor, has a wife who hails from Tucks Point, a suburb of Manchester, Mass.
Annichiarico has dragged his own Massachusetts legacy, as well as his wife's, with him. He has even gone so far as to have ordered the New England version of hot dog buns, properly used for his grilled seafood rolls, from that classic New England bakery, Sunbeam.
Before Annichiarico opened in December, he had operated elsewhere in Ventura, at "the world's worst location." It was there--in the back of a strip mall--that we first discovered and wrote about his classic New England fare.
Upstairs at the Ventura Marina site, above the Carousel, the views are of sailboat masts and blue water, whether you're inside under a line of maritime signal flags, sitting at the bar (which does a very fine job on its drinks), or outside on the open but heated deck. The sounds are the snapping of halyards and cries of sea gulls, and of paddle rhythms as an outrigger canoe gets in its late-afternoon practice run. It could easily be New England--except for the canoe and the fact that, to the north, you can look out to the drying mountains.
But back to the food. Annichiarico is a guy who seems to care about what he's serving. The side dishes--such an integral part of a simple New England seafood dinner--are homemade. The coleslaw is crisp, without too much mayonnaise, and the Boston baked beans boast that certain uneven, almost crunchy texture that identifies the homemade product.
Unfortunately, the onion rings, which I've heard some raves about, are just mediocre, with a breading we found dry and flavorless. Nor are the bread rolls anything to get excited about, although out on the deck, small, black birds compete for them with the paying guests. I've seen them snatch rolls from the breadbasket. The house salad dressing is a tasty creamy Caesar, and the salads are crisp and loaded with crunchy, seasoned croutons.
The guts of the New England cuisine begin, in this case, with the Boston clam chowder ($2.50 a cup). It is, the CC says, beautifully authentic, the kind you get up and down the East Coast, with lots of clams and lots of potatoes, rich and creamy, but without that flour sometimes used to "beef up" the product. If you wish, you can get it in a small, round, hollow loaf of Pioneer sourdough ($5.95)--it soaks into the bread and is just about a meal in itself.
From the chowder, let's move on to the grilled seafood rolls. The fried whole clam belly version (market price) boasts tasty, obviously fresh clams, in a batter that is light and crisp. The lobster version ($12.95) is in a mayonnaise and celery sauce, and oozes with large, fresh lobster pieces. They're all served on those soft, good rolls from Sunbeam.
The menu has several fried or grilled fish, such as mahi mahi ($13.50), which I found just a bit overcooked one night, and cod ($8.95), which seems to be the restaurant's version of fish and chips.
But the emphasis here is on lobster, all of which just happens to come in several times a week from Tucks Point itself. My own choice one evening was the lobster chunks ($22.95).
It's a generous serving--they're all generous servings at Tucks--and you can get them grilled and served with butter, or deep fried. It seemed to me that deep frying lobster is an overdose of richness, so I went the easy way: grilled, with butter.
But, as I might have expected, the CC aced me out again. She had the 1 1/2-pound fresh lobster ($22.95), just boiled. "Anything besides just boiling lobsters," says the CC, "is for chickens, who don't want to deal with a real lobster." I fear that was accurate. My dish was overcooked, making it tough. When our waiter saw this, he immediately removed the dish and, just minutes later, replaced it with a dish properly cooked.
But, still, it was that "just boiled" lobster on the other side of the table that is the winner. So gently cooked, so simple, so sweet, that "it doesn't even need butter. It goes to show," says the CC, "that lobsters don't have to be eaten in a swank joint to be really good."
Sitting out on the deck at Tucks Point in the early evening, with a drink in one hand and the prospect of such a dish soon to come; with the sun going down and the breeze pushing the small sailboats up the channel, you think, "This may not be New England, but it is exactly the sort of Southern California you see on postcards." Which is good enough.
* WHERE AND WHEN
Tucks Point, 1567 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura, 644-2644. Open Sunday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., lunch menu ends at 4:30 p.m. Reservations accepted, major credit cards accepted, full bar. Lunch for two, food only, $18 to $30, dinner for two, food only, $20 to $56.