The tuna steak, described on the menu as "thick-cut," was not only slim but purple-raw within. Deciding that it might not be of sashimi quality, I sent it back, asking the waiter to have the kitchen bring it up to "rosy--or medium rare."
He returned with the same dish, everything a-sizzle, repeatedly warning me not to touch the white-hot plate. There would be no need to. The tuna was at this point cooked to Starkist shoe leather.
Politely, I invited the waiter to consider my dilemma. I said it didn't appear to be a tuna night at Capistrano's. I'd be willing to pay a second entree charge for a properly done piece of chicken.
Valiantly, he whisked the tuna away and said the kitchen would try a third time--starting from scratch with a new tuna steak.
The third tuna serving was cooked properly but carried a repellent, metallic first bite. Concerned, I ate perhaps only a third of it.
Four hours later, my nightmare began: I fell violently ill. Eight hours later, bloated and dizzy and green of complexion, I was considering a ride to the hospital.
That's the bad news. To the extent good news is possible in this scenario, consider that Capistrano's went and did the right thing.
I called the next day as a customer--not a reviewer for The Times--to discuss my trials and request a full refund for dinner. Capistrano's food and beverage director, Jean-Claude Guerin, couldn't have been more responsive.
He issued a refund and profuse apology and a genuine invitation to give the restaurant another try.
I did, repeatedly--but not without waiting a few nervous weeks--and always unknown to the restaurant. Again, I have good and bad news, though not nearly on the harrowing scale of my inaugural visit.
Capistrano's setting within the oceanfront Mandalay Beach Resort is a stunner. Diners choose between the vaulted interior courtyard, a pastel Mediterranean space of classical yet rustic elegance; or a thatch-ceilinged, ocean-view, Tiki-like installation recalling some Caribbean hideaway. These rooms easily place Capistrano among the two or three prettiest places to dine in Ventura County.
Capistrano's food, on the other hand, is uneven. It is clear from the ambitious menu that every effort is being made to rise above the hotel-food genre. But it is also clear on the plate--and every appetizer and entree is artfully presented--that standards can be far lower than promised.
Strangely, an appetizer so simple as bruscetta ($5.50) fails. Usually a dish of vividly fresh chopped tomato with garlic, olive oil and basil arrives with color and flavor drained away: It is a sad cold amber mass, as if stored for days in a refrigerator tub. It goes largely uneaten.
But the far trickier rum-glazed tiger prawns ($8.75), in which shrimp are glazed with Myers's Dark Rum, brown sugar and passion fruit vinaigrette, are sparklingly fresh and cooked to just-before-done perfection. Likewise, the Sonoma goat cheese relleno ($5.75) is a delight: A mild green chili is filled with chevre, thyme and oven-roasted tomato salsa, the result fragrant and bracing.
Onion soup ($3.95) showed well: deeply flavored in bronze-colored stock and onions, with the authentic thin mantle of pungent cheese on top. And wild mushroom ravioli ($7.25), tossed in a light garlic cream sauce, was deeply flavorful, if a bit overcooked and glutinous in the pasta.
Dungeness crab cakes ($8.75) were, sadly, the embodiment of the dual ethic here. Flavorless and at times bitter in the meat, they were nonetheless a gorgeous sight of three nicely browned medallions set adrift in a moat of shimmering green tomatillo salsa.
For entrees, stick to the basics. Pacific king salmon fillet ($14.95), broiled perfectly and finished in cilantro and scallion pesto, is restorative and stylishly conceived. Shrimp and scallops basilic ($13.50) is satisfying in the properly sauteed shellfish but adrift in flavor--the mix of accompanying sun-dried tomato, shallots, spinach, basil and linguine serving to blur rather than define.
Medallions of pork Normandy ($13.75) are expertly handled and smothered, decadently and happily, in a mushroom, apple and cream sauce edged in bright Calvados. For what it's worth, the implicated Ahi tuna ($14.75)--my misfortune with it is Capistrano's only bad experience, insists Guerin--is grilled and sauced in a ginger-lime teriyaki.
Capistrano seeks to broaden its customer base by having French Country cooking specials on Monday and Tuesday, and all-you-can-eat pasta specials on Wednesday and Thursday--all at the bargain price of $9.95, which includes a salad or soup.
On the French night, I had a textbook coq au vin, or chicken in rich wine sauce atop buttered noodles, that lacked flavor and suffered from gummy pasta. On Italian night, when the diner conceives his own pasta sauce, I ordered linguine tossed in olive oil, roasted garlic, sun-dried tomatoes and scallions--but it arrived without the garlic, bitter from dried herbs and overcooked in the noodles.
Desserts are average, the best of them a deeply flavored creme brulee set in sunny orange sauce. But even the best come up uneven: Key lime pie on one visit was bracingly tart and fresh, on another without citrus flavor and, worse, wet and stale in the crust.
Capistrano's has a well-selected and fair-priced wine list, offering a full, tropical Leeward Chardonnay at $19 and a bright, laden-with-berries Rutherford Hill Merlot for $24. Decent bottle wines are available by the glass--Martini Pinot Noir, for example, at $4.50--but the glasses are dessert-wine small, a not-too-subtle ungraciousness that probably yields more annoyance than profit.
If you go, make it early, walk the beautiful grounds at sunset, and keep your dinner orders simple.
* WHAT: Capistrano's Restaurant.
* WHERE: Inside the Mandalay Beach Resort, 2101 Mandalay Beach Road, Oxnard, 984-2500, Ext. 569.
* WHEN: Dinner seven days from 5 to 10 p.m. Lunch Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Sunday brunch from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
* FYI: Dinner for two, food only (regular menu pricing, not midweek specials), from $30 to $70.