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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND | Food

In Good Taste

A variety of fare can be found close to home. Five restaurants represent what's new and improved in local dining.

August 29, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Brother, have we got restaurants.

Well OK, I admit it: If you're after exciting Pacific Rim fare, plates of food in vertical towers, creative recipes from hot chefs and dining rooms spawned by architects of international acclaim, you still need to take a short spin down the Ventura Freeway to Los Angeles.

But only a dreamer or a fool would insist on judging our restaurants by big-city standards, which doesn't mean we haven't got plenty to celebrate with our new, improved Ventura County restaurant scene. Change comes slowly but steadily in these parts, via proven trends, acquired tastes and shifting demographics.

Here's the good news. We've had a spate of interesting restaurants open during the past year or so, places offering a broad range of cultural and culinary experiences. The five chosen represent an up-to-date cross-section of Ventura County restaurants. A couple even feature dishes that wouldn't be embarrassed to appear on top of Westside Los Angeles tables.

*

Petrucci's Bistro, the baby brother of the established and respected Petrucci's Ristorante Italiano in Camarillo, is typical of the new generation in the area. This unassuming Italian dining room is located in an Oxnard shopping mall and serves pizza delizia, the best pizza I've eaten anywhere between Santa Monica and San Francisco. This is an extra-crisp masterpiece baked in a wood-fired oven and topped with a blend of imported cheeses, sweet basil and paper-thin slices of fresh tomato. And it is only one outstanding dish in a restaurant that will surely have you coming back for more.

Much of the credit goes to owner Tom Petrucci and chef Neal Rosenthal, formerly chef owner at the much ballyhooed, now defunct Eatz in Westlake Village. Rosenthal is a bespectacled eminence grise in his open kitchen adjacent to the pizza oven where Chuck Harrill turns out pizzas with smoked salmon, with proscuitto and arugula, with fire-roasted sweet peppers and other authentically Italian ingredients. Have your pizzas New York style (medium crust), Toscano style (thin crust) or, my choice, bistro special extra-thin crust, a cracker-like pie that makes a resounding crunch with each bite.

Several dishes at Petrucci's, in fact, are worth making noise over. Antipasti such as fagioli con salsiccia--sauteed cannelini beans cooked with sweet Italian sausage, chopped tomatoes, olive oil, onions, garlic and sage--are delicious. Salmone carpaccio is even better, sensational slices of house-cured salmon slathered with a peppery mustard sauce.

The bistro makes a different risotto daily and serves nearly one dozen creatively sauced pastas. Among the more resolutely Italian entrees are anatra con vino e rosmarino--pan-seared duck breast in a red wine rosemary reduction--and fegato alla Toscan--an impossibly rich preparation of calf's liver sauteed with pancetta bacon, brandy and caramelized onion.

The wine list features a fine selection of reasonably priced Italian wines.

* Petrucci's Bistro, 2121 N. Rose Ave., Suite 440, Oxnard. (805) 983-1323. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m., daily. Dinner for two, $27-$45.

*

Changing locations seems to have breathed new life into Eric Ericsson's, now called Eric Ericsson's on the Pier.

Apart from having one of the county's more irresistible views--afforded by a nifty Ventura Pier perch--this is also one snazzy-looking room. Appointments in the huge, airy space include a slate gray tile floor, salmon-colored walls, zinc and hardwood dining tables and a giant skeletal fish mobile hanging from the ceiling and looking for all the world like a collaboration between Alexander Calder and the Museum of Natural History.

OK, so it isn't gourmet food, just salt-of-the-sea, dockside Americana, and good bang for the buck to boot. My dining companion and I had to blink when our smoked fish appetizer arrived, because the portion was large enough for the Brady family. In this case, the fish was alder-smoked Oregon salmon, at least 12 ounces, cut into long chunks, served on a platter with round water crackers and a tangy kiwi-mango fruit salad.

Shellfish appetizers include Littlenecks, Pacific oysters, Manila clams and peel and eat shrimp, but none of them compare to the sweet, firm-textured Santa Barbara mussels, steamed in white wine and blanketed with a rich pesto cream sauce. Fresh fish like ono, snapper, thresher shark and swordfish are flame broiled and brought to the table with good French fries and a small salad dressed with a cocktail-sauce-like red vinaigrette. (I tried the ono and found it somewhat tasteless.)

When it comes to deep-fried dishes, the seafood tends to be thickly battered and greasy, though the quality of the products is unimpeachable. New England clam chowder is pasty and pastas are mushy, but there are attractive extras to make up for missteps. Good brews like Oregon Honey Wheat and Sierra Nevada are available on tap, and those incredible McConnell's sorbets and ice creams head the dessert menu, proving that intelligent life does inhabit the Ventura Pier.

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