When I first heard about the Victoria Pub, I pictured waitresses in saucy costumes slinging tankards of beer to boisterous customers. Then, when I called to ask about reservations, I was assured by the cheerful British voice on the phone that the bar served "pub grub" at all hours. I almost stayed home.
But I'd invited my mother to have dinner with the kids and my husband, and she loved the idea of an English restaurant. I'm glad we went with her instincts. The restaurant does have something of a theme quality to it, but it also has a measure of authenticity and earnestness that I found appealing.
The bar is patterned after an English pub, and judging from the liveliness of the crowd, it has succeeded in becoming a "neighborhood" social scene--in spite of being located right in the middle of a shopping center. There's even a dart room where the competition is quite intense. (Bring your own darts, but remember, Monday is league night.)
The restaurant has an entirely different mood from the bar. With heavy rose curtains, upholstered chairs and wood paneling everywhere, it has the subdued elegance of an English gentlemen's club. And the menu is as English as the ambience.
I fell in love with the sounds of the kiddie menu: "Captain Pigwash fish fingers," "small bangers with bubbles" and "crumble of the day."
The adult fare, however, was somewhat harder to judge. The salad, for instance, tasted quite peculiar, as if the vinegar had been left out. Was this authentically English and therefore acceptable? The vegetables, on the other hand, were beautifully cooked. Aren't the English supposed to overcook their vegetables?
Smoked salmon with wheat toast and dill mayonnaise was lovely, and the Brie baked in puff pastry and served with jam and fresh fruit was singularly satisfying. The soups were marvelous. A carrot soup with coriander and the pleasant texture of pureed carrots was delicious. And a chicken soup with mushrooms was exquisitely flavored with a touch of sherry.
Steak and onion pie, while not quite a pie (it had a layer of puff pastry perched on top) was a decent meal of beef chunks in dark gravy with mashed potatoes and vegetables on the side. This and the Cornish pasty would certainly satisfy one's appetite for good, plain, honest food.
Chicken Piccadilly was a potent, Caribbean-inspired dish with a sweet sauce full of banana bites, corn bits and rum-flavored cream. Beef salad consisted of thin rolls of sliced cold roast beef on a bed of crisp salad and vegetables. I really liked the salad that came with the beef, although it floated on a lake of soy sauce.
My mother ordered the best meal of all. She had the Somerset lamb, a perfectly cooked, generous portion of lamb--a steak, not a chop--with a hearty mint sauce on the side. And just to prove it hadn't been a fluke, she also ordered the best dessert--out of a lineup of very good ones. She had the crumble of the day, a fresh fruit cobbler, which happened to be rhubarb--her favorite. Hot, slightly tart fruit covered with sweet, crunchy "crumbles" in a bowl of cream. She finished with an excellent pot of tea, then insisted that her skill in ordering well was the result of a trip to London. I think she was just lucky, but I'm taking her back to the restaurant next time I go.
WHERE AND WHEN
Victoria Pub and Restaurant, 1413F S. Victoria Ave., Ventura; 650-0060. Open seven days for lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner 5 to 9:30 p.m. Pub is open until 2 a.m. Full bar. Parking lot. American Express, MasterCard, Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $25-$60.