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RESTAURANT REVIEW / PIERPONT INN : Venerable Resort Passes the Test of Time

April 22, 1993|HILARY DOLE KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's every restaurateur's nightmare: Your chef of 30 years quits. You haven't found a new one yet, but you're trying to hang in there, making the best of a hopefully short-lived situation. And in walks a restaurant reviewer looking to see if the place lives up to the memories of his youth. This is known in culinary circles as getting your goose cooked.

This really happened at the Pierpont Inn, a venerable Ventura resort built in 1908 and owned by the Gleichmann family for more than six decades. But now, with a new chef in place and things running smoothly again, perhaps the owners can laugh about it.

This year the Inn will celebrate its 65th anniversary. During the past year, under the management of Ron Houck--who is married to the granddaughter of the original Gleichmann owners--the hotel was remodeled and the Inn is slowly changing its menu.

I, too, ventured to the Pierpont recently for the first time in decades. The gracious dining room of my memory has given way to a new hotel and a series of dining cubicles and small rooms, some drearier than others, that can be closed off for private parties.

The view, however, remains spectacular, and the restaurant was designed to give as many tables as possible a chance to bask in the vista. Lovely California seaside plants and magnificent cypress trees almost succeed in obscuring the frantic freeway below, although the traffic noise makes sitting outside less appealing.

For the most part, the food lives up to the fabulous view. I found the vegetables to be consistently delicious.

All the soups were good, too, from a cheerful chunky clam chowder to savory lentil soup and a French onion with almost caramelized onions. Gazpacho, although served in a bowl on a bed of ice, was room temperature. It tasted as if the ingredients had just come from the garden. Someone in the kitchen has a nice touch with spices. As my companion said, "This guy likes pepper, and I like him."

Onion rings were light, sweet and sinfully greasy; they disappeared instantly. The raw oysters and shrimp cocktail were both delicious. Of the dinner salads, the spinach salad was best. Try not to fill up on the tarragon toast and beer cheese (more like toasted pumpernickel and orange cream cheese), because the dinner bread is marvelous--crusty, textured and light.

Over several visits and six or seven entrees, I was only disappointed twice. Chicken breast with papaya sounded great but was as bland as Kleenex, and the rice was a disaster. (How can you ruin rice?) Sea bass one night had the consistency of jellied consomme. Only the crisp Cajun crust kept it from puddling on the plate.

Until I tried a wonderful salmon one night, I would have said stick to lamb and beef--especially lamb. You can hardly find lamb this good outside of New Zealand. Rack of lamb had a trio of exquisite double chops while fillet of lamb was infused with garlic and came with a marvelous sauce and big marinated mushrooms.

I loved the pepper steak, which consisted of great meat, crusted with coarse pepper and covered with a thin creamy mushroom sauce that was quite tasty. Pasta with clams in a wine garlic sauce may have used sliced pismo clams, they were so big. This was a pungent dish--the alcohol lingering in the wine.

From the dessert tray, the trifle was not to my taste, with its chocolate spongy and blowzy. The best dessert consisted of fresh sliced strawberries on whipped cream. Chocolate mousse layer cake came wrapped in a wall of extraordinarily rich chocolate.

My favorite meal turned out to be Sunday brunch, where the light, moist buttermilk biscuits where the stuff of legend and the tiny cinnamon twist rolls were simply habit-forming. Crab cakes were an interesting choice, consisting of moist puffs of surprisingly succulent crab meat, topped with artichoke hearts and hollandaise sauce. The grilled tomato on the side was a much better idea than the corn cakes, which tasted like over-sweetened pancakes.

A boneless pork loin, fragrant with herbs, came with a venerable stuffing full of onions, celery, nuts and prunes. This is the meal I'm returning for.

On a bright spring Sunday morning, I looked around at the guests enjoying brunch. I could easily imagine them coming here as children, as I had. The world has changed drastically since the days when a double room at the Pierpont went for $4 a night.

But it was comforting to know that as long as you can still get wonderful service, biscuits as light as these and fine roast pork for a Sunday meal, then perhaps the world hasn't totally gone to the dogs after all.

On Monday the Inn will celebrate its longevity with an extravagant winemaker's dinner, pairing specific wines with the six courses. Appropriately, the wines will be Wente Bros., the oldest winemakers in California. For more information, call the Inn.

* WHERE AND WHEN

The Pierpont Inn, 550 Sanjon Road, Ventura. 643-6144. Breakfast and lunch, Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 4:30 to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday, 5 to 8:30 p.m. Full bar. All major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $33 to $60. Sunday brunch for two, food only, $10.50 to $34.

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