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Critics' Choices : Our reviewers cook up a short list of their favorite area restaurants

June 15, 1995|Leonard Reed

Few can cook with the natural gifts of Eleano Camboni, a southern Italian whose Simi Valley restaurant Basilico astonishes with sparkling interpretations of classics. Roman stracciatelli soup--fresh spinach leaves adrift in beef broth spiked with Padano cheese and egg--is at once bracing and soothing. Something as shopworn as pasta Bolognese is this time elevated and memorable, focused and dense in freshly ground veal.

Asparagus Milanese? The spears are seared quickly, al dente , in browned butter and served immediately: fragrant, heady, concentrated in flavor. Gnocci, so often leaden, are fluffy pillows bearing the scent of fresh tomato and basil.

Scampi sulla Paglia , however, may best represent Camboni's real sense of style: Large, plump shrimp are flash-sauteed in garlic and oil and sparklingly dressed in lemon and butter before being placed atop hot shoestring potatoes. The list goes on; indeed, the menu expanded recently. Take your time. You'll return to this stylish, unpretentious place tucked in a shopping center.

* Basilico Ristorante, 525 Country Club Drive, Simi Valley, 522-4249. Dinner for two, food only: $40-$75.

****

Amenity is not the strong suit of Tiean Thai in Port Hueneme. Wobbly tables sit in a drab atrium space outside a small storefront with an order counter and a steam-clouded kitchen. But, oh, the dishes that emerge from such chaos.

Spicy scallops are a spare, beautiful treatment in culinary minimalism: Mammoth, sugar-sweet sea scallops are seared, tossed in incendiary chili oil, and fanned out over crisp dark cabbage and bright carrot slivers, ringed by cucumber slices. The alternating acidity and sweetness, fiery heat foiled by cool cucumber, show off the kitchen's unerring sense of balance.

The same verve emanates from Tom Ka Kai, a soup incorporating chicken, coconut milk, lemon grass, lime juice and cracked red peppers. And don't overlook the red curries, deep in earthy flavors made light and fragrant with fresh basil.

Tiean Thai, plainly, is not the place to hold the kid's birthday party. But the food, coupled with an unrelentingly cheerful staff, make this humble place an original that hits the bull's-eye every time.

* Tiean Thai, 273 E. Channel Islands Blvd., Port Hueneme, 382-9855. Dinner for two, food only: $10-$25.

****

Marcello in Thousand Oaks embraces upon entering: cream-colored, sconce-lit walls; clay tile floors, and a seating arrangement that is happily trapped between Serious Fine Dining Establishment and Stylish Happening Trattoria. The food, some of it specific to the hand of chef Austin Di Marcello, captures the same forward but unpretentious spirit.

Do not miss his finest creation, a rustic, hearty soup of bay leaf- and prosciutto-scented borlotti beans over grilled bread. This and a glass of red wine is any fieldworker's dream--but then you are here to engage, happily, in excess. So try the excellent, fall-from-the-bone osso bucco and air-light, green-flecked, spinach gnocci in a pink moat of tomato-cream-red pepper puree.

One slight: Seafood is sometimes dry from overcooking. So ask for rare on fish choices--the kitchen here is nothing but responsive.

* Marcello Ristorante, 140 W. Hillcrest Drive (#117), Thousand Oaks, 371-4367. Dinner for two, food only: $40-$75.

PERSONAL FAVORITES

Had I reviewed it, I would name Rosarito Beach Cafe in Ventura as one of my three Critic's Choices. From the elastic flour tortillas, heady salsas and earthy beans to wildly imaginative quesadillas and subtly marinated, grilled ahi tuna, this stylish bustling place continues to sustain excellence in food and service--as well as concoct bracing margaritas of ridiculous proportion. It's no wonder Rosarito is the only game in town late on a Friday night.

Dear to my heart are two early-in-the-day places, both in Ventura. City Bakery turns out dense fresh breads; a small but inventive array of sandwiches employing those breads; earthy soups; and sparkling salads, among them a bracing Caesar. Bold strokes in the kitchen give new life to such standbys as tuna (mixed with Feta, capers, and herbs), meatloaf (Cajun spices put a square fist in ground turkey), even chicken (spiked with sharp curry and fresh chutney); family-style seating lends the place a special warmth.

I can't count the number of breakfasts and brunches I have taken at Pete's Breakfast House in Ventura--the place is that consistent, that fetishistic about just-cut fresh fruit salads, firm grilled potatoes and soft salmon tacos that stun in abundance, freshness and depth of flavor.

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