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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Menu at 21 Victoria Breaks Jazz Club Mold : An audacious chef, delicious dishes and intimate atmosphere offer a memorable Santa Barbara escape.

August 19, 1993|LEONARD REED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Few jazz clubs are known for their food, always ancillary to the music. And few restaurants that also feature music offer a focused, memorable dining experience.

Now comes 21 Victoria, the restaurant/jazz club that seeks to break the mold. It succeeds--so splendidly, in fact, that it quickly ascends to the top ranks of very best restaurants in these parts. Watch out, Citronelle in Santa Barbara; beware, Marcello's in Thousand Oaks.

A young man named Michael French is in town. Culinarily speaking, he's a complicated sort: Nothing he cooks is easily drawn from a single tradition, a clear style. Such iconoclasm usually is the mark of immaturity, an anarchic impulse to fashion conceits that end in failure.

But French, who is Paris-trained and versed widely in Mediterranean and Asian cuisines, hits grand slams in such dishes as sesame prawn linguine, audaciously tossed with vegetable brunoise, coconut curry sauce, and sweet basil. Then there is the simple pork chop, so often delivered as shoe leather, but this one plump and fragrant and sealed by a brazen lemon grass-bourbon marinade and carmelized onion glaze.

We'll return to the food. First consider the space, which starts the pleasure.

21 Victoria occupies an old house, modestly hip-roofed with exposed eves, on a side street only steps from Santa Barbara's main drag, State Street. The front of the house, literally, comprises the bar and music area; things get hopping here about 9:30 most nights.

Go early and walk to the back of the house. The walls are cream-yellow, the floors hardwood, the windows look out to a treed, ivy-clotted courtyard. Tables are in plain white cloth, each with a single candle and fresh flower. The lighting is soft but for the overheads beaming from French's exposed kitchen (depending upon where you sit, you'll watch him at work).

This is an intimate dining room, following the contour and idiosyncrasy of an aging aunt's house, and entirely without artifice, pretension, or formality. It's a fine match for the food and the thoughtfully selected wines that are available.

Start with vegetable spring rolls ($4.95), plump Vietnamese encasements served alongside a dipping sauce amply laced with chili paste, cilantro, and Asian vinaigrette. They're fresh, fragrant, bracing. If available as a special, do not pass on ravioli stuffed with smoked trout ($6); it is served with chive beurre blanc and decadently draped in marscapone cheese. This dish, with hazelnut hints in the stuffing, is breathtakingly singular in its flavor intensity and lush textures.

Calamari appetizers are original, compelling, and first-rate: on one night squid rings are delicately set adrift in black beans, salsa, and bacon ($6), and on another simply quick-sauteed and served with garlic chips and smoked tomato risotto ($6.95). In either case, the squid are tender, sweet, and never overwhelmed by what would seem rather heady accompaniments.

French's soups are outstanding, particularly a velvet-smooth but bracing Indian lentil curry ($3.95).

Among entrees, the grilled pork chop ($14.95, described above), is without peer. Only the otherwise flavorful grilled chicken breast ($12.95), barbecued Thai-style with coconut curry risotto, fell flat in texture from slight overcooking.

Braised duck breast ($16) was tender, rare-as-ordered, fanned out over sesame noodles and beneath a mantle of ginger-blueberry demi glace. The collision of briny noodles with fruity sauce shouldn't have worked; somehow, it did, happily jostling expectations along the way. Medallions of beef tenderloin ($16.95) were quite good but less distinctive, perhaps, than other meat choices, despite their arrival atop wild mushroom duxelle with soy-Cabernet sauce.

Saffron seafood risotto ($15.25), in which dense, deeply flavored risotto is studded with prawns, scallops, and sweet peas, is restorative yet light and fresh in the seafood. Likewise, a special one night of seared king salmon ($16) arrived medium-rare in a moat of saffron cream, topped with a sun-dried tomato tappinade and salmon roe; the result was an unaccountably balanced set of intense flavors. Only one fish entree suffered: spearfish ($14.95), a member of the marlin family whose flesh is darker than swordfish, arrived slightly tough from overcooking; its delightful Thai-peanut sauce served up a fair rescue function.

Desserts ($4.25) are something of a French event, and the waiters, otherwise refreshingly low-key and effective, will parade this fact. But it is not entirely unreasonable, for the fresh cantaloupe, peach, kiwi and plum sorbets are rare examples of density and focus. The blueberry tart finds delightful balance amid strong custard, fruit, and butter pastry flavors.

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