Amouth-filling tri-tip sandwich at Buster's, butterscotch shadows on the patio wall at M.K.'s, juicy fillets of barbecued salmon at Casa de Sevilla, camaraderie at the bar and quality meat on the table at the Sportsman, and gracious dining at the Biltmore Hotel--for this restaurant writer these were the highlights of the first year of Ventura County Life.
And in just the last few weeks, return visits have confirmed that these restaurants were worth a return visit.
The major disappointment of the year-end appraisal was the discovery that Ma Mattie's Southern Cookin'--the restaurant I'd have put at the top of my list--didn't survive. Since it certainly wasn't the food--Ma's fried chicken, cobblers and gumbo were more than just good--I'll speculate that the location, at the edge of Oxnard next door to Port Hueneme, helped do Ma in.
But Buster's Original Bar-B-Q and Bakery in Saticoy seems to be thriving, opening new locations and expanding the original. Buster Davis still won't part with his sauce recipe, so to guarantee that the locals get enough of the stuff, he is dishing out hundreds of those fine tri-tip sandwiches daily. Lathered with the secret sauce, this may be the best of its species in California.
Up in the Chumash nest called Ojai, M.K.'s opened last summer to certain expectations that it would become the new hot spot. It looks as though it has. The bamboo-fringed rear patio, especially on a hot afternoon, enhances the dining experience. Watching the shadows color the patio area as the sun changes is just one of the things that makes M.K.'s a satisfying place to visit.
The seafood Vera Cruz is another. It boasts several types of fish, plus shrimp and scallops sitting in a salsa wine sauce spiced with goodies such as artichoke hearts and olives. The penne vodka is another respectable choice. The vodka-cream sauce on the pasta, laced with sun-dried tomatoes, is not too thick and the tomatoes give it the right tang.
And do not forget the cobbler, no matter which variety is offered on a given day.
Up in Santa Barbara, Butch and Birgitta Wyse have run the Casa de Sevilla for 33 years, so you might imagine that it hasn't changed much since my visits there a year ago. You're right. Don't let the name fool you; this is really a place for seafood, steaks and chops. And it's still the home of Santa Barbara's Old Guard--most of them stuffed into dressy blue blazers.
Items of choice at Butch and Birgitta's would include an appetizer of the chile con queso, which turns out to be almost but not quite a chile relleno--made quite mild by removing the pepper seeds. Any of the beautifully grilled fish would do as an entree, but I go especially for the firm but flaky barbecued salmon. Wonderfully fresh and perfectly timed on the grill, this is some of the best seafood you'll find on the coast.
In downtown Ventura a quarter of a century ago there were two spots to go for a special evening. One was the Pierpont Inn, which is no longer very special. Then there was the Sportsman Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge. The ownership at the Sportsman has changed over the years, but present owners Joe and Jenny Ching have maintained high standards. The high-quality meat is as good as ever.
At the bar, you may be sitting next to a guy who was there when the place opened in 1950. You will navigate through the dimness to one of those old-fashioned red leatherette booths--it's not hard to tell that you're at a meat house. The liver, breaded and grilled and truly smothered in onions, is well worth coming back for, as is the filet mignon.
The Sportsman has a baker who comes in periodically and prepares pastries. He puts out a German chocolate cake that avoids being cloyingly sweet and would more than hold its own in a Betty Crocker bake-off.
What may be Santa Barbara's best restaurant happens to be in Santa Barbara's best hotel--the venerable Biltmore. The phrase "best restaurant" should be qualified, since the Biltmore is best at dinner, not at lunch. At dinner, chef Wendy Little continues to prepare that gorgeous lobster sausage in a basil butter sauce.
This time around, the baked lobster was local instead of being from Maine, and although the champagne mustard sauce was the same, the meat was less tender. The sweetbreads, lightly breaded and with morel mushrooms, were as good as I remembered them to be. And who can deny that sitting in the hotel's formal La Marina room, looking across the lawn at the Pacific, is one of the South Coast's most gracious dining experiences?
In these days of very few really good restaurants--whether they be joints or the Biltmore Hotel--it's reassuring to know that, from a $4 tri-tip sandwich to a plate of $16 sweetbreads, there's still some very good eating out there.
* WHERE AND WHEN
* Buster's Original Bar-B-Q and Bakery, 1201 S. Wells Road, Saticoy. (805) 647-2103. Open 7 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. No alcoholic beverages. No credit cards. Lunch for two, food only, $10-$20. Recommended dish: tri-tip sandwich, $4.
* M.K.'s, 139 E. Ojai Ave., Ojai. (805) 640-8001. Saturday and Sunday, open for breakfast 8 a.m.-noon, for lunch 12:30-3 p.m. and dinner 5-10 p.m. Monday-Friday, lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and dinner 5-10 p.m. Reservations accepted. Major credit cards accepted. Full bar. Dinner or lunch for two, food only, $22-$52. Recommended dishes: seafood Vera Cruz, $17.95; penne vodka, $9.75; cobbler, $5.
* Casa de Sevilla, 428 Chapala St., Santa Barbara. (805) 966-4370. Open Tuesday-Saturday for lunch noon-2 p.m.; dinner 6-10 p.m. Reservations accepted. Major credit cards accepted. Full bar. Dinner for two, food only, $32-$50. Recommended dishes: chile con queso, $4; barbecued salmon, $15.
* The Sportsman Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge, 50 S. California St., Ventura. (805) 643-2851. Open for lunch and dinner 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday; breakfast and lunch on Sunday 9 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10 p.m. for dinner. Major credit cards accepted. Reservations accepted. Full bar. Lunch for two, food only, $12-$20. Dinner for two, food only, $25-$46. Recommended dishes: liver and onion, $7.95; filet mignon, $15.95; German chocolate cake, $2.50.
* Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel, 1260 Channel Drive, Santa Barbara. (805) 969-2261. Serving dinner in La Marina restaurant seven days 6-9:45 p.m. Major credit cards accepted. Reservations accepted. Full bar. Dinner for two, food only, $50-$70. Recommended dishes: lobster sausage, $8; sweetbreads, $16.