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RESTAURANT REVIEW / CAFE ZACK : Originality Is Perfect Ingredient : Ventura site is off to a very promising start. The owners couldn't be more welcoming.


The indigenous restaurant is the bane and glory of dining out. In being one-of-a-kind and expressive of the personality of a sole owner or chef, it has great potential for intimacy.

That's great if the relationship works out. But it's Nightmare on Elm if you find yourself locked into somebody's dark fantasy of what constitutes original cuisine in an original space. The very hazard of a local restaurant's individuality is what makes national chains such as Olive Garden prosper--better to eat predictably if a bit less originally.

Happily, Cafe Zack is off to a very promising start as Ventura's newest original restaurant. The informal space is just right (small, candle-lit dining room in a former house, with Carmen McRae wafting through on the stereo); the eclectic array of food runs from fair to sublime (a bracing, notable achievement in these parts), and the two very adult table-waiting owners couldn't be more welcoming and attuned to each diner's wish (imagine that from a happy high-schooler in a bow tie).

Zack used to be the much-loved, much-vilified Cafe Voila. The Voila chef, Miguel Vargas, remains, as does his inventive touch. But gone is the house attitude, what many perceived as Voila's imperial fantasy: Now You Are in a High-Tone Establishment.

Among other things, Zack has slashed prices to near-bargain levels. And then there are the new owners, a pair of sisters from, loosely speaking, greater Los Angeles: Margee Cooper and Linda Bright.

Cooper comes from a catering and management background, with a stint in Aspen along the way; Bright also catered but is hands-on as Zack's startlingly good pastry chef. Zack? Cooper and Bright named the place after their 3-year-old nephew, Zack. Don't try to figure it; it's part of the whimsy of the place and, you will discover, the sisters themselves.

Start with the house salad ($3.95), sparkling mixed leaves with crumbled goat cheese and toasted pine nuts; it is huge, dressed lightly in a sharp vinaigrette, and altogether bracing. Caesar salad ($4.95) is another big one but a tad bland, lacking the requisite anchovy or lemon punch. Another excellent appetizer, if available, is pate ($6.50): Ample for two, the chicken-liver-port-wine pate is accompanied by a hefty wedge of brie, cornichon and salami slices.

Vargas' pastas are visionary and make for fine entrees or, split, first courses. But select carefully. Pasta a la checca ($8.95), in which capellini is tossed with fresh tomato, garlic, goat cheese and pine nuts, lacked flavor, its sharp ingredients notwithstanding; worse, the noodles were overcooked to a mush.

Summer pasta ($9.95), however, was a triumph: Jumbo shrimp, broccoli, spinach, mushrooms and onions, all cooked al dente over large firm ziti, made for a fragrant, light meal. And pasta campanille ($9.95) was a fortifying, rustic blend of chicken, turkey Italian sausage, roasted eggplant and sun-dried tomatoes with garlic and basil atop thin noodles.

Best, however, was a pasta special in which the noodles were sauced in a woodsy mix of three mushrooms and dense, cream-based brown gravy.

The printed menu, an exercise in focus and restraint, features but four entrees. These are bolstered by another two or three each night listed as blackboard specials.

One special, salmon with red-pepper puree ($12.95), was perfect: seared outside, succulent within, and a sweet vegetable sauce that enhanced the fish flavor. From the menu, lemon chicken ($8.95) could fairly be called a Vargas Greatest Hit. The man does haunting things with cream, and this is the demonstration dish for it: tender breast of chicken, grill-seared, sauced in a velvety combination of white wine, cream and lemon.

Pork tenderloin ($9.95), in which sauteed medallions of tenderloin arrive sauced in fresh apples, brandy and cream, did cry out for the more mighty Calvados instead of sweet cooking brandy, but the dish still worked pretty well.

Zack's desserts command respect. Save room. The peanut-butter mousse pie in chocolate crust crippled one dining companion with pleasure (it retained the Reese's echo without being too sweet). The trifle, on another night, engulfed this diner and companion in a wonderfully light, frothy, vivid melange of cake, berries and whipped cream.

Linda Bright changes the dessert array, apparently as her spirit moves her, and this comes as no surprise: She is keeper of the surprising Carmen McRae CD that plays between riffs of very early Miles Davis.

The wine list is small but well-selected. Beaulieu Vineyards Merlot is up to any of the pastas, at $18 per bottle. Likewise, a tightly knit, lemon-edged '89 Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay is perfect foil, at $23, to the chicken's lemon cream.

Wines by the glass are a mixed lot: Glen Ellen Merlot, quite an everyday wine, seems a tad steep at $4 per glass. But then on the same night it was available, Margee Cooper--just to mix things up, apparently--opened a bottle of peppery, intense Zaca Mesa Pinot Noir and offered it at the extremely attractive price of $4.50 per glass.

Individuals, and the places they run, can be like that.


Cafe Zack, 1095 Thompson Blvd., Ventura, 643-9445. Lunch and dinner from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday (sandwiches and salads only between 2 and 5:30 p.m.); Sunday brunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. MC, Visa. Reservations suggested on weekends. Dinner for two, without wine or tip, from $25 to $40.

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