RESTAURANT REVIEW / KAMPAI : Creative Chef : Kampai Restaurant has a new owner who can occasionally be found behind the sushi bar.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Early this year, in a small Oxnard shopping center at the corner of Vineyard Avenue and Oxnard Boulevard, next to a Thrifty Jr. drugstore, nestled among Greek, Indian and soul food restaurants, Kampai Restaurant got a new owner.

Tomiichi Maruyama, who had been a sushi chef at the Sheraton Plaza La Reina Hotel near the Los Angeles airport, took over. I can't say whether Maruyama has improved things, since Kampai, which has been there about three years, only received me just recently.

What I discovered was that the most popular, the noisiest and the liveliest of the several Kampai rooms are those crowded with teppan tables. The crowd is there, I think, mostly for the atmosphere and possibly for the value.

At both lunch and dinner, these tables are happily used by customers looking for a good amount of food at a decent price. It seems that birthdays are especially popular here, and customers frequently get boisterous versions of both Japanese and English renditions of "Happy Birthday." Personally, I think the teppan tables serve the restaurant's least desirable food.

Because tucked into the middle of the Kampai, sort of between the bar and the teppan rooms, is a small sushi bar.

But first let's talk about the popularity of those teppan tables. At these, the diner sits immediately in front of the cooking grill, which forms much of the table, and the chef does his thing just inches from your plate, starting with a dramatic pouring of cooking oil onto the hot grill.

The hibachi chicken ($10.95 dinner) arrives with the soy, garlic and ginger seasonings we are used to in these dishes. One evening I watched the chicken sit on the edge of the grill while the vegetables were cooked. The vegetables came out nicely crisp, but the chicken had just been on the grill too long and had dried out by the time it reached the plate.

That same meal included an assorted tempura appetizer ($3.75 lunch), with shrimp so rubbery they could be stretched without breaking. But you can score one for the fried rice on the side with its garlic and spices.

Across the room, I find things to be different. Perhaps it's because, although I've never knowingly seen him there, owner Maruyama is a sushi chef who can be found occasionally behind the sushi bar. I like the sushi bar best, even if Kirin is the only Japanese beer they serve there. Most, but not all, of the sushi bar's seafood, which comes from a Los Angeles distributor, is fresh.

I particularly liked the spicy tuna roll ($3.50). The spices, wrapped up with the tuna in seaweed and rice, come from Japanese chili peppers, Tabasco and Chinese chili oil. And I'd go again for the Kampai roll ($4.20) with its crab and cucumber and a large, deep-fried shrimp protruding and just demanding to be the first bite.

Years ago, at a very good sushi bar in West Los Angeles, I asked the sushi chef to make me something he would like to make, something not on the menu. He came up with a dish of giant clam in a sweetened mayonnaise sauce, baked in a large clam shell. It was delicious.

That was the first time I had tried such a dish and, though I've had it at other places since and it has generally been good, it has never been quite as good as that first time. That same dish, which Kampai calls Dynamite, is worth trying at Kampai.

When I asked the sushi chef to "make me something different" at Kampai one evening, he produced something called Tiger's Eye, concocted of thin, alternate slices of squid and salmon, tightly wrapped inside seaweed and sliced, then baked, then sliced again and served on a bed of shredded daikon. Lovely to look at, delightful to taste.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Kampai Restaurant, 2367 N. Oxnard Blvd., Oxnard, 988-0252. Open for lunch seven days 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., for dinner weekdays 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 10:30 p.m. Reservations accepted, major credit cards accepted, full bar. Lunch for two, food only, $15 to $30. Dinner for two, food only $24 to $38.

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