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RESTAURANT REVIEW : For the Cleavers of the '90s : Honest, simple Oceanview Bar & Grill recalls the '50s with its comfortable, yet contemporary, fare.

March 24, 1995|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life!

MONTROSE — This quiet little community retains an old-time '50s sort of innocence. You may not actually see the ocean from hilly Ocean View Boulevard, but it's pleasant and peaceful up here, with the hundreds of shade trees, the minimal traffic noise and, best of all, restaurants where people actually rub shoulders with strangers.

Take the new kid on the block: an honest, unpretentious little place called Oceanview Bar & Grill. Substitute a natural fabric for the red and green polyester napkins and tablecloths. Now take a bit of the modern edge off the soft jazz piped into the dining area. Presto: You can almost imagine yourself dining out with the Cleavers.

Almost. Because, while this narrow, stubbornly charming restaurant does prepare such retro items as steaks, pork chops and stuffed potatoes, most of the menu is devoted to contemporary American taste. That is, Italian appetizers, pastas and veal dishes.

A cursory national restaurant survey would demonstrate that Italian dishes have become as commonplace on the American scene as meatloaf and egg-salad sandwiches once were. Mozzarella Caprese , penne puttanesca and veal saltimbocca are all community dishes of the '90s. No wonder they feel like logical choices in a popular neighborhood watering hole, circa 1995.

The restaurant belongs to a welcoming young couple, Roxanne and Randy Pugh, and the Pughs have made things quite cozy. The decor consists of a shiny back-wall mirror, the requisite impressionist paintings and somewhat claustrophobic booths. Fresh carnations have been placed on all the tables.

The bar--which takes up just less than half the restaurant--is cordoned off from the dining room by a green curtain, a brass rail and a tree strung with lights, subtly intimating that Christmas is just around the corner. Come to this bar any weeknight and you will run up against a stream of locals, chatting softly. On weekends, both the bar and the dining room fill up, creating a noisy buzz generally not associated with this part of town.

Part of the credit for this success must go to the restaurant's young chef, Floriana Pellegrini. Pellegrini's food is not creative or fanciful, but it does get the job done. Occasionally her style comes across as overly bland, as in the case of the plain-Jane vegetable linguine or the cafeteria-style hunks of broccoli that accompany most entrees. In the end, though, I found I was mostly grateful for her straightforward approach. It translates to few ingredients, assertive flavors and a comfortable familiarity.

The only time the menu strays from form, it does so with a good result. Pellegrini's crab cakes are anything but commonplace. She prepares them with a blend of crab, bay shrimp and bread stuffing--so bready, in fact, that the crab flavors are partly obscured. But how she manages to make these cakes so crisp and delicious is anybody's guess. To me, they're reminiscent of the cakes I like to snack on in out-of-the-way New England lobster shacks.

*

Fried mozzarella consists of three oblong chunks of bufala mozzarella with a golden-brown bread crumb crust. A reasonably up-to-par marinara dipping sauce comes on the side. As for salads, the Caesar has a creamy dressing offering a heady hit of anchovy. Caprese salad gives us good cheese, fresh basil and a fruity green olive oil, but succumbs to a bad case of UTS--unripe tomato syndrome. The sesame chicken salad is oddly irresistible. It's really a hybrid of Chinese and Italian--chicken dripping with sesame oil, cold angel hair noodles and a veritable mountain of iceberg lettuce.

Pellegrini should take more chances with her pastas, up to now not the kitchen's strong suit. Penne Abruzzese is a sourish blend of sun-dried tomatoes, overcooked squash, shiitake mushrooms, olive oil and garlic. The ingredients never quite come together. Better is the penne puttanesca , where the anchovies and capers mix well with a grainy red sauce.

From the grill come the tender, herb-marinated rib-eye steak and a good double-thick pork chop that arrives at the table smeared with applesauce. (I scraped mine off.) Try the chicken Bernini from the house specialties page of the menu. It's a takeoff on saltimbocca , only instead of sauteing a flattened veal scallop with sage and prosciutto, pounded chicken is used, and a snuffbox's worth of Fontina cheese is added.

Blackboard specials appear nightly, tending to such homey fare as fresh salmon with a caper and olive topping, or osso buco , braised veal shank served with saffron rice and a rich gravy. Non-pasta entrees offer the additional choice of garlic linguine or a cheesy stuffed potato, a choice that seems easy enough to me--have potato with the grilled dishes, linguine with anything else.

The chef deserves praise for her egg-rich creme brulee , double praise for her airy, bittersweet tiramisu. These desserts are gummy cliches in most local restaurants, but Pellegrini does them proud.

But pass on the waxy chocolate-chip cake and the refrigerated-tasting cheesecake. Some '50s things should never come back.

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WHERE AND WHEN

Location: Oceanview Bar & Grill, 3826 Ocean View Blvd., Montrose.

Suggested Dishes: crab cakes, $6.95; sesame chicken salad, $8.95; chicken Bernini, $11.95; creme brulee , $3.

Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday; closed Sunday.

Price: Dinner for two, $32 to $48. Full bar. Parking lot in rear. American Express, MasterCard and Visa.

Call: (818) 248-2722.

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