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RESTAURANT REVIEW : It's Luck of the Draw at the Shoals : The scenery is always outstanding and food and service can be very good, if you're lucky.


It is five minutes before 8, the hour of the dinner reservation. The table, we are told, is not yet set--would we please come back in 10 minutes?

We do. Still not ready. Would we sit by the pool--no one offers to take a drink order--and perhaps try in another 10 minutes? Sure.

Still not ready, though this time we'll just loiter until seated, at 8:20.

A server--somewhat beleaguered but quite cheery--shows up and apologizes. Indeed, she goes out of her way to make us comfortable, though she will, before the meal is out, disappear unaccountably for 20 minutes while we wait to ask for a check. A new wave of customers, apparently, was clamoring for unmade tables in this popular but understaffed dining room.

Welcome to the Shoals, a restaurant situated within the Cliff House motel, a virtual graft upon the Ventura Freeway's southbound shoulder overlooking the ocean. The Shoals occupies a lovely cream-colored pair of rooms separated by French doors; the entire length of south wall in both rooms, however, is glass, giving everyone a view over the turquoise pool to the open Pacific.

Few places afford a better setting at sunset, on most nights a protean wash of chalky greens, ambers, and reds fading into cobalt. Few places, as well, will switch from contrapuntal Bach to lyrical Coltrane as background to the great show in the sky.

Reasonable and finicky diners I know swear by the place. The huge gaps in otherwise excellent service, they say, are small price for the setting and the food, which can be quite good. As a result I made visits during busy times and characteristically slack midweek times but found the result always to be the same: a luck of the draw in whether seating and service, reservation or not, were reasonably prompt or a marathon of lost effort.

So be prepared.

But also be prepared to succumb--I never thought I would--to a rearrangement of dining priorities. The service, when available, is in fact first-rate, at times inspired. And the setting and the food do work to blunt the most acute of expectations for a restaurant that does, despite it's family-run warmth, reach for greatness.

Foodwise, The Shoals is hit and miss. A gutless, bland Caesar salad offsets a vivid, basil-stout cream of tomato soup. Ditto for tough, overcooked chicken breasts breathtakingly set in a moat of delightfully aromatic mustard/garlic sauce with spinach ricotta ravioli. Indeed, how is it possible for a purportedly fresh snow crab cake to be tired and lacking in sweet flavor when alongside it is a companion appetizer of rare perfection: perfectly seared, sparklingly fresh prawns with Parmesan rice in a dense, heady, rust-colored shrimp bisque sauce?

As with the seating and service, one hopes to get lucky, because in that happy event the Shoals is a very special restaurant. It's getting lucky that's the trick.

Among appetizers, try the above prawns ($5.95), if available (menus change weekly but bear common themes). Or try kebabs of ahi ($6.95), delicate in the meat, sauced with a haunting mango dressing, and accompanied by mixed greens far better than those in the Caesar. For the intrepid (and hungry), consider a wonderfully rustic, audacious combination: grilled chicken, papaya, and poached egg in red wine sauce ($6.95). Soups ($2.75), whether tomato cream or broccoli/rice with curry, are more than dependable.

Sadly, all chicken entrees--either the roasted breasts or, on another night, game hen--were overcooked. But fish was handled expertly and sauced from an original culinary vision.

Poached Atlantic salmon ($14.95), bearing the scent of saffron, arrived in silken clam-Chardonnay-cream reduction over curried rice. The result was bracing, even spectacular. Sauteed yellowtail ($15.95) was nearly as successful, dressed in a light blueberry sauce and set atop a bed of suitably subtle leek stew.

A T-bone steak enticed my companion one night, but beef tenderloin, the server announced with regret, would do a stand-in. The treatment--atop a bed of sauteed potatoes with mushrooms, tarragon, thyme, and paprika-garlic sauce--still tempted us, and I can't imagine that a T-bone would have made the dish any better. The beef ($17.95) was sponge-tender, cooked perfectly at medium rare, properly seared, and nearly overwhelming in the depth of its flavor. The incongruence of having a truly memorable beef dish in a maritime setting of Deibenkorn colors only added to the decadence furnished by the sauce.

The Shoals' wine list is small but well-selected, featuring, among other choices, a tightly knit '91 Morgan Chardonnay at $27.50 per bottle. A few good wines are available by the glass, as well, notably a Firestone Sauvignon Blanc ($3.50) that stood its ground against the richest of the fish sauces.

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