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RESTAURANT REVIEW / COOLIBAH : Secret and Snooty : Coolibah offers an eight-course dining experience for $15--if you can stand up to the scrutiny and, ahem, dress properly.

August 06, 1992|HILARY DOLE KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At a dinner of the American Institute of Wine and Food, a self-professed gourmet gave me two tips: Try the hot dogs outside the Price Club and eat at Coolibah.

When the hot dogs turned out to be smashing, I started inquiring about the restaurant. What I heard made me both eager and apprehensive.

One person told me that years ago, when the restaurant was located in Los Angeles, he had been so severely chastised by the owner for kissing his date, he still hadn't gotten over it. Another friend spoke of being turned away imperiously at the door when he was recognized as a returning patron.

Although in the restaurant business for decades, owner Sam Kovich seems intent on keeping a very low profile. Kovich doesn't advertise, the business operates strictly on word of mouth and he seems adamantly against any kind of publicity. Further, guests are subjected to a certain amount of scrutiny upon making reservations as well as before, during and after the meal.

Coolibah (named after the Australian gum tree) operates out of what was once and might still be a prefabricated house near Meiners Oaks. It has been there for 15 years and only serves dinners on the weekends. After you make a reservation, Kovich calls personally to give directions and imperatives. Men are expected to wear coats and ties, women long dresses.

When you walk nervously up the front steps on the appointed day, you find you are indeed dressed for an occasion. You are met at the door by a waiter bearing flutes of sparkling wine. You are then ushered into a living room that has been converted to a dining area, where a small number of tables have been set with solemn magnificence.

Opulent centerpieces of flowers, candles, silver goblets and bowls of fruits and nuts dominate the tables. Five-fork place settings are graced with an array of wine glasses. The effect is both elegant and somewhat surreal--a cross between a Dutch still-life masterpiece and a '50s Hollywood film set.

After waiting until all the "guests" had arrived, we were given a formal tour of a large spotless kitchen in which there was absolutely nothing to see in the way of food preparation, save for a small pan of soup on the stove. "Food like this," we were told, "cannot be prepared in advance."

Once we were seated, our eight-course dinner began with a small bowl of smoked pheasant soup that tasted like cream of red peppers with fresh ginger and a touch of mint. It was delicious. It was followed by shrimp canapes, a minute portion of shrimp in warm Russian dressing on a Triscuit--also quite palatable.

As we finished the next course--small crepes filled with eggplant, chicken, crunchy wild rice and pungent fresh ginger, Kovich circled the room, displaying for our admiration three succulent roasts on a silver platter. When or where they had been cooked remains a mystery. However, the beef Wellington, lamb noisette and fillet of beef, served over two separate courses (with nary a vegetable), were quite good.

The salad that followed had an odd, grapefruit-tinged dressing but was served with a fine piece of semi-soft Finnish cheese. The grand finale, crepes suzette , which went around the room in a blaze of glory, was puzzling. Perhaps a peculiar substitution for the Grand Marnier at the last minute? At any rate, the decently small portion was quickly superseded by a demitasse of quasi-Turkish coffee.

The disappointment of dessert couldn't begin to spoil the remarkable effect of this evening. This was an experience of feasting without gluttony, and as one member of our party commented, "I've never had better service in my life--ever." Among the astonishments was the price, which was $15 per person and $8 per bottle of wine, poured at their discretion.

Mr. Kovich, who is in his 80s, spent a great deal of time with his guests, discoursing, lecturing, reminiscing, even chastising. Now that I have been there, I think the main purpose of his culinary endeavor is to capture people and hold them in his complete power for an entire evening.

In a corner of the restaurant, a huge leather portfolio is filled with letters dating back to the '60s and '70s attesting to the fact that many other diners felt the need to put words to paper acknowledging their admiration for Coolibah. I found the food for the most part fine and some of it even wonderful--although perhaps not quite as astounding as I was meant to. In any case, this was one of the most unusual dining experiences of my eating career.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Coolibah, 100 S. Arnaz Ave., Ojai. Open on the weekends 7:30 p.m. by reservation only. Dinner $15 per person, wine $8 per bottle. 646-2311.

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