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SMORGASBORD : Island Fare : A return to the Christy Ranch finds that some things have changed and others--including the food--have not.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Until about four years ago, in late August or early September, a group of eight to 10 of us would go out to Santa Cruz Island and stay at the Christy Ranch. The old ranch house, Casa Vieja, sits on the west end of the island. It was our headquarters for exploring the island, snorkeling in isolated coves, roaming long, white deserted beaches, looking for Chumash village sites, frolicking under a waterfall at a hard-to-reach swimming hole--and eating and drinking.

Eating, especially, was an especially big part of the fun. A couple of pudgy cooks would put together huge breakfasts, then pack an equally filling lunch that our two island guides would toss into the jeeps for the day’s adventures.

At dinner, there’d be barbecued tri-tip roasts--or fried chicken or steaks, side dishes of potatoes, corn and salads and a gooey dessert.

In the early morning, we’d go down to the beach below the ranch house and pry some abalone off the rocks. And while we were on a day outing, the cooks would pound them for sauteing and we’d have all the abalone we could eat for dinner--a special treat.

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Eventually we learned to bring along some of our own spices; then we’d invade the kitchen in the late afternoon and make ceviche from fish we had speared or caught during the day.

It was like an annual house party.

Then about four years ago, the Santa Cruz Island Club, which had operated the visitor concession at Christy Ranch, evolved into Channel Islands Adventures, out of Camarillo. The concessionaire added several bedrooms to the five that had been in Casa Vieja, moved some of the accommodations across the ravine to the old bunkhouse, added more bathrooms, moved the kitchen and now provided facilities for 28 people.

The thought of all those other people sort of dampened the enthusiasm of our group and we stopped going there. But a couple of weeks ago, I thought that I’d check out this current operation-- especially with regard to the food.

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It’s still good, and there’s still plenty of it. The menu hasn’t changed much, although the old cooks are gone. They’ve been replaced by Richard Blake, who seems a cross between an Army chef and a nouvelle Renaissance man.

With bulging stomach, he barges around the kitchen--which has also been moved across the ravine--in baggy shorts, tank top and rubber thongs. In this rustic setting, Blake is adding a certain gourmet touch to the ranch cuisine.

Dinner one night starts with vegetables and a dip. Then comes large, barbecued chicken breasts. The chicken is cooked on a gas grill, which is outside on the patio sheltered from the frequent fog-laced winds. The breasts are seasoned with olive oil, rosemary and a dash of teriyaki sauce. On the side are salad and steamed broccoli--the latter overcooked and almost, but not quite, redeemed by a dash of lemon pepper and butter. Carrot cake is for dessert.

In a place such as this--with its history as a working cattle ranch--it is only appropriate that breakfast be the star.

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Some of the breakfast is ordinary fare--yogurt, fresh fruits, packaged pastries and frozen orange juice. But then come the Blake touches--link sausages grilled with apple slices and pancakes with banana chunks in them, crisp on the edges. Blake seems to have a certain touch with potatoes. They are fried with onions, garlic and mild chilies and come out beautifully firm and savory. This is good, heavy ranch-style food.

Lunch is memorable for the setting more than for the menu. One day the meal is served on the beach at Forney’s Cove, where we sit on old, weathered timbers--the remnants of a building long gone--and eat ham and chicken cold cuts and salads and drink lemonade.

Since Blake makes nearly everything himself, it’s notable that the potato salad, which wasn’t much, had been brought in from the mainland the day before. The rice salad, on the other hand, was outstanding, put together with chunks of the previous night’s chicken as well as olives, celery, apples, and cayenne pepper.

Packaged cookies and fruit are not my idea of dessert.

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Since part of the day had been spent in a small, glistening cove opposite Forney’s, that evening Blake was able to put together one of the world’s better marinated fish dishes.

His ceviche had calico and Cabazon bass, which had been speared in the cove by one of the visitors. Along with guacamole and drinks, it made the cocktail hour on the patio before dinner a major event. Liquor at the ranch, by the way, is BYOB.

Now that most of the island is under management of the Nature Conservancy, the concession that brings guests out to the Christy Ranch must be re-negotiated at certain intervals and is subject to change. So it’s hard to know whether Richard Blake and Channel Islands Adventures will still be the operator after October.

But it is safe to say that at Christy Ranch, the lonely site at the end of the island, the hearty, ranch-style meals will be part of the lure.

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