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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Food on the Tracks : * Vincent Hill Station treasures its train depot origins, serving French specialties in a chuck wagon setting

March 25, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life!

ACTON — It's no secret that this high desert town has become considerably less exurban of late. Acton, perched directly above the Antelope Valley, now boasts its own Metro Rail stop.

French cuisine--one of the necessary trappings of big-city life--is a newfound raison d'etre for Acton's leading restaurant, Vincent Hill Station. Never mind that this rustic roadhouse predates Metro Rail by several years. The restaurant has enjoyed a renaissance since the earthquake induced local commuters to abandon their private vehicles for the train. And the food, if memory serves, is better than it has been for quite some time.

Rustic has become a restaurant buzzword, but here it applies nicely. The restaurant treasures the hand car and the railroad tracks in front of the building that recall the days when this building was a working train station. The dining room is entered through an authentic-looking all-wood saloon that would be perfectly in character in Cheyenne or Lubbock. But Vincent Hill Station is no ordinary chuck wagon. The owners honed their craft at Rive Gauche Cafe on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, and they've put together a pleasing menu of French standards. You've seen these dishes before, though perhaps not in the high desert: escargots Provencal, French onion soup, duck with fruit sauce, poached salmon. It's no small comfort to note that all are reasonably priced and decently put together.

The French onion soup, for instance, is properly beefy and nicely crowned with melted Gruyere cheese, bubbling down the sides of the tureen like good kid food. There's a barbecued pork rib appetizer, but I have requested--and gotten--a different rib to start the meal: an appetizer portion of the entree called pork ribs Vincent Hill. These are a tender, stewed version of baby back ribs, five or six to an order, in a spicy broth. Curiously, the dish is spiced more like a Chinese dish than a French one. I think I tasted anise in the broth, as well as chiles and some aromatic I can't identify.

The escargots are chewy and classically served in a garlicky parsley butter, which would be better with a bit less lemon juice. Mushrooms stuffed with crab overdoes it in a different way. The four fat mushroom caps are stuffed with a fine duxelles into which finely chopped crab meat is mixed, adding nice flavor and texture. But then the mushrooms are smothered in a thick cream sauce, which dilutes the juices and adds little but calories.

All entrees other than pasta come with a good, homey soup or a standard salad. The best pasta, for the record, is penne . The little tubes are lightly tossed with fresh-tasting goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes. (The other pastas I've tasted here are nice, too, but overcooked.) My favorite entree is a Cajun version of scampi. The chefs saute large prawns in a light sauce with garlic and Cajun spices, and they're perfect with a fragrant mound of rice.

I wish all the sauces here were as light as that one, though. The grilled pork chops, for instance, taste pretty good on their own; they don't need their thick, though tasty, tarragon mustard sauce. There's a creditable roast duck in a sweet cherry sauce, but this sauce also gets cloying after a few bites.

Pass on the slices of roast tri-tip, piled up pell-mell on the plate with sauce Bordelaise (red wine, shallots and handfuls of chopped parsley). They're over-salted. The artfully poached salmon comes blanketed with a ponderous sauce based on vermouth, unless you ask for the sauce to be served on the side. New York steak--a good-size cut--can be had either with sensible glazed shallots or a deliriously rich Cognac-green peppercorn sauce.

There is a real cellar underneath the restaurant, and the owners have stocked it with a nice selection of vintage wines from France and California. I have to admit astonishment at seeing a $285 bottle of Chateau d'Yquem, one of the world's most expensive dessert wines, on this wine list.

Too bad most of us can't afford this ambrosial liquid, because the so-so cheesecake, excessively grainy creme brulee and marquis cake (a ladyfinger and ganache creation) are nowhere as good as a great dessert wine.

On the other hand, I wouldn't have been able to partake of the Yquem even with an unlimited budget. I had a long drive home, and friends don't let friends drink Yquem and drive. Next time, I think I'll ride the rails.

LIAISON: WHERE AND WHEN

Location: Vincent Hill Station, 553 W. Sierra Highway, Acton.

Suggested Dishes: French onion soup, $2.95; penne with goat cheese, $7.95; scampi, $16.95; pork ribs Vincent Hill, $8.95.

Hours: Dinner 3:30-10 p.m. daily; brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Price: Dinner for two, $22-$45. Full bar. Parking in lot. American Express, MasterCard and Visa.

Call: (805) 272-4799.

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