VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND : Feast of Nations at the Christmas Dinner Table : Area chefs are serving the fare of foreign lands with traditional American dishes this holiday season.


They are full-grown adults, no doubt about it. But when it comes to concocting a Christmas menu, chefs at some Ventura County restaurants call on their childhood experiences for inspiration.

Though chefs indeed like to experiment, for Christmas they try to maintain a delicate balance between the traditional holiday that they grew up with and the distinctly unique.

The following is a sampling of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day feasts around the county:


Capistrano's Restaurant, Mandalay Beach Resort, Oxnard

As a child growing up on a small farm in El Paso, Texas, Robert Garcia called it capirotada . Now, as executive chef at Capistrano's, he calls it bread pudding. Any way you slice it, for Garcia the dessert is a Christmas tradition, one he will share at his Christmas Day buffet.

"I'm fourth-generation American, but there were cultural foods from Mexico that stayed in the family," said Garcia, 38. "Capirotada was something that was inexpensive and could be made with things around the house. My grandma would use bread and corn tortilla scraps. We had chickens, so the eggs were no problem."

Garcia said Christmas was always a major event around the family farm.

"I remember as many as 45 or 50 people. It was quite a sight," said Garcia. "Grandma and grandpa would set out workhorses, put pieces of plywood over them and throw on tablecloths so people would have a place to sit down."

Garcia's menu will include a choice of roast turkey with sage and apple stuffing and giblet gravy; baked honey-glazed ham with pineapple and raisin sauce; New York strip steak with wild mushrooms and brandy sauce; grilled redfish in lemon-tarragon sauce; a seafood medley in lobster sauce; sauteed chicken breast in Burgundy and champignon sauce; and a Louisiana shrimp bar.

Main dishes will be served with a choice of pecan rice, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, salad, orange-cranberry relish, fresh fruit and cheeses. For dessert, the selection will include bread pudding with bourbon sauce, English trifle, graham cracker crust pumpkin cheesecake, miniature French pastries and pies and holiday cakes.

Cost is $19.95 (adults), $17.95 (seniors) and $8.95 (children 12 and younger). Call 984-2500, Ext. 569 for reservations. The buffet will be served from noon to 7 p.m. The restaurant is at 2101 Mandalay Beach Road.


Cafe Beriloche, Ventura

There won't be any midnight fireworks. There won't be any barbecued pig. But short of that, the Christmas Eve dinner Angelica Navarro has planned for Cafe Beriloche will be authentic Argentine.

For the holiday meal, Navarro, who is owner and chef, will bake a shepherd's pie filled with meat, raisins, olives, onion and cilantro and topped with mashed potatoes and cheese.

"Shepherd's pie for Christmas Eve is traditional in my country," said Navarro, 30, who spent most of her childhood in Buenos Aires. "It was a big celebration. We would set a big, long table and serve all kinds of entrees and desserts and different kinds of wines."

Christmas Eve dinners in Argentina would begin about midnight, said Navarro and conclude sometime in the wee hours of Christmas morning. "At 12 o'clock," she said, "we would have dinner and make a toast with the wine and watch the fireworks."

To accompany the shepherd's pie, Navarro will prepare a potato and parsley dish and two empanadas. Almond cheesecake will be served for dessert.

Cost is $14. Dinner will be served from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Call 643-9764 for reservations. Cafe Beriloche is located at 100 S. Fir St.


Restaurant at Wheeler Hot Springs, Ojai

Wheeler Chef Gael Lecolley came to the United States from Normandy, France six years ago. This year, for the first time, his parents will join him.

Mom and dad should feel at home on Christmas Eve when Lecolley prepares a combination French-American dinner.

The meal will open with a mixed salad with herb vinaigrette. For the appetizer there will be a choice of wild mushrooms sauteed with garlic, shallots, white wine and cream in a puff pastry shell; smoked salmon in phyllo dough and served with a goat cheese walnut sauce; or a lobster bisque.

For the entree there will be a choice of turkey breast stuffed with winter fruits and nuts and served with mashed potatoes and vegetables; a roasted filet mignon served with chestnut puree; sauteed salmon filets in an herb crust served with green-apple brandy sauce; or acorn squash stuffed with roasted chestnuts and served with grilled vegetables.

For dessert there will be a choice of yule log cake or Christmas pudding.

"You will find the smoked salmon, for sure, in France, and the roasted filet mignon and even the turkey," said Lecolley, 29. "Everybody in France eats the traditional Christmas turkey, but turkey can be so boring, so I try to make it attractive."

Cost is $37.50. Call 646-8131 for reservations. Wheeler is at 16825 Maricopa Highway.


Red Rock Ranch, Hyatt Westlake Plaza

Chef Dan Catlin's mission this holiday season was to create a Christmas Dinner buffet that blended California ranch-style dishes with more traditional Christmas tastes.

The leg of lamb with jalapeno mint jelly should do the trick, and if not, then maybe the smoked tuna with Cowboy Remoulade will.

"California ranch is our new restaurant concept," said the 33-year-old Catlin. "We wanted to incorporate that without messing with Christmas too much.

"People sometimes don't understand. We've left some things alone, like the turkey and prime rib and just added some touches here and there."

The buffet menu will include potato leek and beef barley soup, seven salads or specialty dishes, including pasta salad, Caesar salad and tricolored fusilli with Bay shrimp.

There will be an ice-carving display with four seafood dishes, including white shrimp with cocktail sauce, oysters with a choice of hot sauces, smoked salmon with bagels and cream cheese and smoked tuna with the Cowboy Remoulade.

For the entree, there will be stuffed sole with scallop duxelles; cheese ravioli with nicoise olive sauce and tomatoes; roast turkey with stuffing, gravy and cranberry-orange chutney; prime rib with horseradish cream and the leg of lamb. Horseradish whipped potatoes, buttered winter vegetables and sweet potatoes will also be served.

And finally, if the buffet table doesn't collapse, there will be seven desserts, including a macadamia brittle ice cream, eggnog, and a yule log.

Cost is $24. Call 497-9991 for reservations. The Hyatt is at 880 S. Westlake Blvd.


Leo Smith is a regular contributor to Ventura County Weekend. Write to him at 93 S. Chestnut St., Ventura 93001, or send faxes to 653-7576.

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