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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Master Approach to Grilling Sets Cozy Kona Ranch Apart : The friendly staff serves fish and meat entrees that are consistently charred outside and succulent within.

August 03, 1995|LEONARD REED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kona Ranch House opened months ago without fanfare. Indeed, it was hard to find,tucked away in a corner at Channel Islands Harbor and eclipsed by its partner restaurant, the adjacent and ever-popular Chuy's.

The idea behind Kona was to offer a more elegant and substantial dining experience than the order-yourself, mostly chicken Chuy's. A sit-down dining room with knotty pine walls and picture-window views of moored boats would make for a more peaceful setting in which to select from a broad, grill-based menu of steaks and seafood.

It works. Kona Ranch is worth seeking out.

There's no particular rhyme or reason to the Hawaiian theme, other than that it comports reasonably with the waterside setting. But no matter. The food here is ably turned out, the fish and meat entrees consistently charred outside and succulent within. And the staff couldn't be more eager to please.

Don't expect formality, dinner-house agenda notwithstanding. Kona remains casual, with a cozy lodge-like feel. Similarly, the food has a straightforward, ungussied approach: most entrees are unsauced, surrounded by a few blanched vegetables, and arrive on wood trays with stainless steel liners. The result is a room that's perfect for the family after a long outdoorsy weekend.

The menu is so focused--choose a steak or seafood, and soup or salad and potatoes or rice are included--that appetizers as a meal course are unavailable, save something called Kona Roll-Ups. Get them; they're quite good: flour tortillas into which cream cheese, black olives and crunchy seasoned vegetables ($3.25) are rolled and sliced like Japanese maki, or sushi rolls. The roll-ups may also be ordered with grilled chicken ($3.75) or seafood ($4.25), and the results are always deeply satisfying.

The real strength of the kitchen, however, is the open grill and the chef's fine hand that controls its heat. Grilled sea bass ($14.95) is a thick cut, seared and charred on the outside and falling into wet, near-sugary flakes within: in a word, perfect.

Mahi mahi ($13.95) enjoys the same treatment and success, except on the night when it is offered teriyaki-style, in which case it is less than fresh and hardly improved by a metallic coating.

Seafood kabob ($13.95 as a special one night, but $10.95 on the menu), had perfectly handled sea scallops, shrimp, whitefish and green peppers and onions over firm rice.

Among beef dishes, prime rib is outstanding. The regular portion ($14.95 for a 12-ounce cut) arrives seared on the edges from a hot oven roasting and medium-rare throughout, precisely as ordered; the meat is deeply flavored, with excellent texture. Steakside, the top sirloin ($13.50) is expertly aged, cut and grilled.

Only the half-rack of pork ribs ($9.75) seems rather wan by comparison. And, inexplicably, Killer Chicken ($8.75), the decadent staple of Chuy's next-door, is overdone, tough around the edges, an out-and-out mistake.

Accompaniments here warrant deciphering. A visit to the amply stocked salad bar is included with the entree price, but spend the extra $1 to get a better-than-average, tart Caesar.

In any event, choose the salads over the optional soups: a New England-style clam chowder that's too thickened and a chili-cheddar brew suffering the same viscous, jumped-up fate. The mammoth (and properly) baked potato wins out over an overly sweet pineapple rice or otherwise decent French fries or onion rings.

Choosing sensibly, you will eat quite well at this inviting new restaurant. With the ironing out of a few wrinkles, Kona Ranch promises to be one of the county's more satisfying waterfront venues.

Details

* WHAT: Kona Ranch House.

* WHERE: 2800 S. Harbor Blvd., Channel Islands Harbor Landing, Oxnard.

* WHEN: Seven nights, dinner only, from 4 to 9:30 or 10 p.m., depending upon the crowd. (Note: from 4 to 6 p.m. on Sunday through Friday, the menu features early bird specials, full dinners at reduced prices.)

* HOW MUCH: Dinner for two, food only, from $18 to $45. Major credit cards.

* CALL: 985-5723.

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