Sunday, December 15, 2013

Foodie Field Trips

As published in Ojai Quarterly magazine, Fall 2013.

Follow the oyster shell trail to the Jolly Oyster. Photo by Bill Snider
With a voracious appetite and a MapQuest print-out in hand, I declare a foodie field trip. “I’m hungry,” I say. Hungry for adventure, something fresh, something to feed my soul – and my growling stomach. Soon we’re on the road. With my husband in the driver’s seat, I co-pilot him to an uncharted locale, where we stake our claim to two seats and a menu full of possibilities.
After 14 years in Ojai, sometimes we just get an itch to escape from our usual grind in nirvana, where there are more great restaurants than a town our size deserves. Don’t get me wrong, living in one of the last unspoiled valleys in Southern California is an absolutely dream. We’re lucky to be here, and we know it. I love living in a small community where everyone knows your name, and we know all the menus by heart, but that’s also why we feel the need to get out sometimes. Fortunately, it’s just a short drive to discover bold new flavors and fantastic scenery (not that the Pink Moment ever gets boring).

The Jolly Oyster
San Buenaventura State Beach Park, Ventura
Just 20 minutes down the 33 to the 101, the Jolly Oyster has been bringing oysters from their farm in Baja, Mexico, to Ventura’s State Beach since 2011. Considered sustainable, healthy and local (after all, Baja’s beautiful clean waters are only 300 miles away), you really can’t beat the interactive experience of fresh-shucked oysters and views of the Channel Islands. Their trailer sits adjacent to the beach and dunes, selling oysters by the piece and clams by the pound to go or to stay. Picnic tables and barbecue grills are available, so bring your favorite side dishes and beverages (alcohol is welcome here), and make a day of it. Though the Jolly Oyster was originally exclusively shuck-your-own (with free lessons), the newly added Jolly Oyster Kitchen food truck offers several prepared oyster dishes – raw, baked or fried – along with steamed clams, scallop ceviche, crab claws and grass-fed beef burgers with homemade pickles for the kids (or finicky adults). “This isn’t a rubbish shack on the beach,” says owner Mark Reynolds, who has taken great pains to ensure an authentic culinary destination by seeking out local organic produce from Ojai’s Rio Gozo Farms and creating innovative sauce pairings like their signature Jolly Sauce – boasting Vietnamese-Thai flavors, what Reynolds calls, “A bloody good sauce!” for his raw Pacific and Kumamoto oysters. Parking is free for an hour, or all day for just ten dollars. The Jolly Oyster is open every day except Tuesday until sunset, and their kitchen does the cooking for you Thursday through Sunday.

Don’t miss:
The oyster taco featuring a homemade GMO-free corn tortilla filled with three panko-fried oysters, pickled cabbage, arugula and a saffron-paprika aioli.

Hozy’s Grill
1760 East Lemonwood Drive
Tucked into an industrial park south of the 126 in Santa Paula, Hozy’s is a secret gem. In a classic rags-to-riches tale, owner Gary Holazpfel of Automotive Racing Parts right next door decided to create a restaurant that served great food and wine that not only accommodated his culinary tastes, but his clients’ and employees’, too. Dubbed a “hobby” restaurant by the server I spoke with (it seems making good food is the priority, not money), the menu is comfort food with a modern spruced-up twist featuring pastas, gourmet pizzas, fresh seafood, prime steaks and occasional Mexican specialties. You’ll be hard-pressed to easily spot it from the street, but once inside the bright neon walls adorned with posters of high-performance vehicles signed by famous racecar drivers, there’s no mistaking you’re in a NASCAR supplier’s eatery. Come as you are and linger over cocktails and appetizers before your first course – diners are encouraged to sink in and enjoy. The impressive mile-long wine list has given them the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for several years running. Hozy’s is open daily for breakfast and lunch, and dinner is served Wednesday through Sunday. It’s a small restaurant, so reservations are a must.

Don’t miss:
The chicken-fried steak or the abalone if it’s on special – so buttery, delicate and sweet.

The Italian Job Café
2810 South Harbor Boulevard, Oxnard
A graduate of the Culinary Art Institute of Italy, chef and owner Fabrizio Iannucci brought his authentic flavors to the Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard in 2009. With a passion for sharing the recipes of his youth in Sardinia, Iannucci serves incredible dishes that are a welcomed departure from the typical fare served up at more Americanized Italian restaurants. Thin-crust pizzas tossed by hand include the authentic and hard-to-find pizza bianco with salty ham and a bleu cheese blend. Handmade fresh pasta dishes include traditional lasagna; strozzapreti or “priest-stranglers” - a hand-rolled pasta sautéed with grilled Italian sausage, eggplant, garlic, spices, tomato sauce; and my favorite pasta of all, the totelloni di zucca stuffed with ricotta and pumpkin. Fish, chicken, lamb and steak dishes prepared using time-honored recipes round out the entrees, including chicken with garlic, lemon, fresh herbs, sun-dried tomatoes, capers and white wine sauce; whitefish with a horseradish pistachio crust in a fresh tomatoes, garlic and basil; and bistecca - New York steak with mushrooms, roasted garlic and herbs. Substitutions are never scoffed at, and small plates can be made as entrees and vice-versa. The Italian Job is open daily for lunch and dinner.

Don’t miss:
The panna cotta – a luscious silky custard made with cooked sweetened cream and gelatin.

Whether you’re just visiting or you’ve been in Ojai your whole life, consider a foodie field trip. It’s always worth the drive to discover new gastronomic gems.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Off Market Tasting Trail – Beer and Wine Goes Industrial in the VC

As published in Ventana Monthly October 2013
An industrial park zoned for manufacturing off Telephone Road in midtown Ventura isn’t where you’d expect to find award-winning boutique wines and craft beer, but then again, it’s exactly as it should be.
“We're considered a manufacturer because we use raw materials to create a finished product,” says winemaker Marlow Barger, who together with his wife Janis opened Plan B Cellars (more on the name later) just last year.
With four wineries and a craft brewery scattered among irrigation and tile wholesalers, the DMV, window tinting installers and plumbing suppliers, the newly-dubbed Off Market Tasting Trail may seem out of place, but it’s certainly blazing a trail into the hearts of more adventurous would-be connoisseurs.
Plan B resides in an interesting neighborhood for a winery; on one side, there’s a granite fabricator, on the other, the railroad tracks. Not only is the rent cheaper in industrial parks, there’s a quirky and appealing charm factor.
“We have a toast whenever the train rolls by,” Marlow says, looking out past the roll-up doors to the railroad tracks where ocean breezes flow through. It’s those curious traditions and the view past the tracks to an agricultural field, the harbor and beyond to the Channel Islands that bring wine lovers in. It sure beats a two-hour drive up the coast through the Santa Barbara wine country. And the wine’s pretty darn good, too.
Specializing in typical Rhone varietals – Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah – using grapes sourced from Santa Barbara County and Edna Valley, Marlow makes only reds. One of their more popular wines, a dry rosé, comes with a fun gimmick – a refillable full-liter Italian glass bottle with a swing top. It’s sort of like what their neighbor down the street, Surf Brewery, does with glass refillable growlers, which keeps patrons coming back for more.
The growlers over at Surf, though, get filled with craft beer made with ingredients sourced from around the world. If a 64-ounce growler’s too big, pints and five-ounce samplers are also available. The taproom and brewery offer a relaxed vibe in a large converted warehouse with surfboards, surf memorabilia and surf art adorning the walls, and vintage surf punk piped in through the speakers.
Since opening in 2011, Surf’s business quickly took off. With the distinction of being the largest commercial brewer and the only packaging microbrew in the county, it’s no wonder the place is usually packed.
“We haven't aggressively promoted any of this,” says co-founder Doug Mason, a homebrewer since the late 1980s.
He credits social media for much of their success, and the beer. “Craft brewing over the last decade is exploding,” he says. They’ve also got a gold medal under their belt from the Los Angeles County Fair for their County Line Rye Pale Ale.
A homebrew shop at the front of the taproom and class offerings have helped them tap into a new niche, turning customers into hobbyists. Escabeche food truck, routinely parked right outside, offers hungry beer drinkers tacos, chile rellenos and sopes.
Just across the parking lot, Panaro Brothers Winery has an intimate space to taste their affordable wine (half bottles start at just $8.00) inspired by their Italian grandfather’s traditional winemaking style. Reds and whites sourced from Santa Barbara and Monterey counties are handmade using a small press just like they were taught when they were kids. David Panaro’s quick wit comes alive between sips, doling out wine trivia and bad jokes.
“You know what you're supposed to do if a bottle of wine won't breathe?” he asks. “Give it mouth-to-mouth.”
He and his brother Vito started making wine here nearly five years ago, but the tasting room opened just a year and a half ago when things started to get interesting with the newly-formed urban tasting trail.
David, a geologist for the County by day, felt that going into the family wine business was fool proof. “You can't go wrong with wine no matter the economy,” because, he says, people drink when times are tough, and they drink when times are good.
Farther down the street in a fancy modern tasting room, Four Brix Winery, which opened in 2011 a few months after Surf, is on their third harvest. Owned by Gary and Karen Stewart, “Brix” is the term for measuring sugar in grapes, and “Four” references the couples’ favorite sweet spots for wine: Italy, Spain, France and California.
Gary, a roofing contractor, started making wine in their garage in 2001. When he decided to pursue winemaking more seriously, he took classes in viticulture at U.C. Davis.
“After several thousand dollars worth of classes, I learned you just need good fruit to make good wine,” he says.
Their grape choices are paying off and getting noticed. Their “Scosso” Cab-Merlot-Sangiovese blend received 89 points from Wine Spectator and a gold medal from Sunset magazine, which will feature Four Brix in their October issue.
In 2001, the first place to open on the trail was Ventura Wine Company. Owner Nick Fisher wanted a place for food and wine tasting, so in 2008 he opened The Cave, where enomatic tasting machines offer one-to-five-ounce tastes of 32 different wines with the swipe of a pre-paid card and the push of a button, making this is the candy store for oenophiles. Small plates of wine-friendly gourmet bites allow patrons to have a full gastronomic experience in an ambient space molded with gunite to look and feel like a wine cave.
While The Cave is the trail’s veteran, Plan B is the new kid on the block. But the Bargers are in their early 60s, and they’re banking on this new venture as their retirement. In fact, the name of the winery is a nod to their newly-adopted and not- so-traditional retirement plan.
Marlow, who’s been in construction for 40 years, says he likes to be challenged, and after apprenticing with Mike Brown of Camarillo’s Cantara Cellars, he decided, with Janis’ urging, to forge ahead, investing a big chunk of their IRA, even though it seemed risky.
“We ran some financial scenarios, which we ignored,” he says with a smile.
They’ve kept their plan simple and lean, yet they’ve managed to make their warehouse space comfortable and pleasant. Picking bins tilted on their sides cleverly border the outdoor patio adjacent to the tracks, and bench seating at tables topped with burlap tablecloths allow patrons a relaxing space for a BYO-picnic.
Having the support of the other four establishments on the trail, he says, has been helpful, because they all encourage and help each other, which leads to everyone’s success.
“A rising tide,” Marlow says, “floats all boats.”

 For more information and a map of the Off Market Tasting Trail, visit

Shabby Goes Chic in Midtown Ventura

As published in Ventana Monthly September 2013

Photo by Gaszton Gal
Christian McCord sees beauty in the most unlikely places. Driving down Poli Street one day in 2005, on a route she’d taken many times from her home in Santa Paula to visit her in-laws in Midtown Ventura, a “For Sale” sign in front of a run-down old house caused her to hit the brakes.
“I always called this the yard sale house because they had yard sales all the time.”
All of the windows except two were busted out. The yard was overgrown and full of weeds. But McCord had to have it. After a fair amount of persuading, she and her husband, Bryan, made an offer the very next day.
She remembers telling him, “I know what I will do to this house.”
But it was even worse than they thought. The front door had been kicked in and ultimately removed. There was essentially nothing left in the kitchen – no appliances and the dilapidated cabinets housed a couple of dead rodents. Interior and closet doors were either missing or unsalvageable. Old beat-up cars and more weeds littered the backyard.
“It was a total drug house in bad, bad condition,” says McCord, a 41-year-old colon hydrotherapist.
The three-bedroom, one-bath, 1,100-square-foot Tudor cottage needed a lot of work. Though it had been in the same family, it was an old house that hadn’t been touched since it was built in 1924. Before signing on the dotted line, the McCords had two big concerns: was the foundation cracked, and had meth been cooked in the house? The last one was especially critical because at the time they had a 6-month-old baby girl.
“Everyone thought we were crazy.”
A retired fire captain gave the house a thorough inspection, reporting that the foundation was solid, and that, much to their relief, no drugs had been manufactured on site, which would have been a deal breaker. “That was the part I was super concerned about.”
            When escrow closed, the realtor had no keys to hand over – there wasn’t even a front door. Neighbors welcomed them with open arms and told them horror stories of a motorcycle being driven in and out of the house and people taking up residence in tents in the backyard. It took two months to renovate the house to a point that it was livable and the family of three could finally move in.
“Everything in the house was a disaster,” McCord recalls.
Having just moved from a 1926 craftsman bungalow in Santa Paula, and having lived in old houses as a child, McCord felt confident she could use her design savvy to turn the tattered house into a charming home.
“I grew up in old houses, so it’s where I feel comfortable.” McCord also has a background in retail buying, styling and designing. “So I’ve kind of always had a style thing in my blood.”
She visited her favorite flea market in Santa Monica, searching for pieces that would fit the home’s era and size. She says flea markets are a source of inspiration and are more authentic and less expensive than antique stores. It’s how she designed their Santa Paula home, when her style leaned more toward Romantic French Country. Today, she favors the more comfortable and less frilly Prairie Style.
“Since I’ve been married, it’s kind of evolved to include my husband more so he’s not overcome by pink.”

When choosing pieces, she’s fairly particular. But perfection is not for her; scuffs, bumps and chips are what she covets most.
“I have to have original. I won’t even buy it if it’s been touched up. Layers and layers and layers of paint – I love that.” She doesn’t refinish or distress the pieces – she buys them completely untouched. Obvious signs of wear and tear, she says, show authenticity. “It just shows life and personality.”
McCord found that her attachment to “original” had to be compromised when tackling the home’s renovations. The original floors were stripped and stained when they first moved in, but termite damage made the floors drafty and the wood was beyond repair. Ultimately, they installed wide-plank hickory hardwood floors, stained to a deep dark chocolate brown and hand distressed.
            The kitchen proved to be the biggest hurdle.
            “Nothing in the kitchen is original. It was really bad.”
            The couple installed white cabinetry and marble counters. A friend’s European flea market find serves as the kitchen’s center island, lit by a vintage Italian toile chandelier adorned with strawberries. A Dutch door cut into the kitchen’s back wall floods the whole house with natural light and allows gentle breezes to flow through.
“My grandmother had a Dutch door, and I loved it.”
Since Bryan is an electrical contractor, his expertise eased many aspects of the renovation. He installed vintage light fixtures throughout the house, including a crystal chandelier over the dining room table and sconces in the living room.
“It’s nice having a contractor husband.”
As their household grew - Lily is now 8 and her little brother Noah is 7 - so did the need for functionality.
“They can have whatever they want as long as it fits in one toy box and one cabinet.”
Avoiding clutter drives most of her furniture purchases.
“I live by cabinets,” she says, which are found in every room, serving not only a functional purpose, but a decorative one, too. The one small bathroom has a dresser-style sink cabinet. A bathtub/shower does double duty while fulfilling the 1920s design esthetic. McCord found the then footless tub sitting in the dirt outside a shop on Padaro Lane in Carpinteria for just $75.
The house, which has been featured on the Web site “The Old Painted Cottage” and in designer Fifi O’Neill’s book “Romantic Prairie Style,” exudes a rustic charm that’s cozy and peaceful. Even the kids’ rooms feel like dreamy sanctuaries. Soft creamy-white walls offset with muted earthy pastel accents create a subdued color scheme.
“I like for my color palate to be in my pieces and fabrics.”
            Subtle details, including McCord’s collection of turn-of-the-century Barbola mirrors and early 1900s cast iron doorstops, harken to another time. “My great grandmother had those in her house when I was growing up.”
            More than a dozen English paisley eiderdown quilts drape beds and top cabinetry, using a favorite design technique. “I like mixing textures,” she says.
Walls are decorated with various architectural pieces, including an upside-down picket fence, a rusted gate piece and corbels from old porches embellish the tops of doorway corners. Recycled porch columns and urns create more visual interest.
With the home’s interior now finished, McCord turns her gaze out beyond the Dutch door.

“I can’t wait to tear into the yard,” she says, imagining an English garden with elegant roses, hydrangeas and pea gravel. And like the rest of the house, it will surely feel like it’s been there for nearly a century.

A Meal in Your Hand: Ojai's Celebrity-Worthy Sandwiches

As published in Ojai Quarterly Summer 2013

Photo by Bill Snider
Each summer, my family heads to the South Carolina coast - a tradition we’ve had since the eighties. We sprawl our pasty white selves across old rickety chaise lounges, down too many cheap beers from my brother-in-law’s Igloo or frozen lemonades from the push-cart guy and burn ourselves to a crisp. After we’ve had enough of the sun, the waves, the sand and a game or two of ski ball at the corner arcade, we take refuge from the sweltering heat in the upstairs condo’s air conditioning. My sister wrestles Kroger’s finest deli meats, cheeses and condiments from the fridge, and I join her in the assembly line, painting bread slices with mustard and mayo, and quickly doling out slapped-together sandwiches for her hungry kids. Then there’s the secret behind what we now call her famous Myrtle Beach Turkey and Cheese Sami: 15 to 20 seconds in the microwave. I’m not sure why lukewarm grocery store deli meat and weeping American cheese on softened white bread tastes so good, but it does. It tastes just like summer.
At home on the left coast, my husband, Bill, prefers to take his time building the perfect sandwich. One of his specialties is an adaptation of the classic BLT, taking full advantage of the local summer tomato haul. He layers crisp bacon, thick slices of heirloom tomatoes, chunks of fresh avocado, a slab of Buffalo mozzarella and piles of arugula, wedging the whole lot between slices of toasted sourdough wheat. The pièce de résistance is the addition of his own pickled shallots, thinly sliced and steeped overnight in one of his favorite vinegars with fennel, peppercorns and sugar. A pickled dill carrot from Ojai’s Kult Kitchen and a pepperoncini seal the deal. I call it the Bacon, Lettuce and Awesome! sandwich, and I’m not sharing. Well, on second thought, maybe I will. Here’s why:
Several months ago, my friend and local graphic designer, Evan Austin, invited me to join him in a campaign to get actor Robert Downey, Jr., who has visited Ojai once or twice, to join us for lunch. He’s a big fan of the Golden Globe winner’s movies, and I’m a big fan of the local food scene, so Evan figured we had a winning combination. He launched a Web site and pages on Facebook and Twitter, which we shared with a few friends. Soon, “I’m having lunch with RDJ” snowballed from a silly conversation into a crazy idea that resonated with more than just us. And it might be crazy enough to work. “It’s so Ojai,” they say.
We don’t do fanfare or paparazzi in this town, which actually makes us a magnet for real celebrities who aren’t looking to get their mugs onto magazine covers. That’s what makes this whole idea plausible, because it really is as simple as a sandwich – tablecloth and utensils optional – shared in good company on one of our town’s breezy intimate patios, packed to-go to enjoy on a bench on the Shelf Road trail, or devoured quietly while perched on a barstool at the local watering hole. Here’s where a celebrity – or an average citizen, for that matter – can get an opportunity to experience the real Ojai – and a damn good sandwich.
To me, a sandwich is simply perfection served between two slices of bread. A whole meal right in the palm of your hand – barbaric and sophisticated all at once. Ask any of the locals where to get a good sandwich – and I’m not including burgers, wraps or burritos here – and you’ll get barraged with too many excellent choices.
I’ll get some of the usual suspects out of the way right up front. The Pulled Pork at Feast Bistro, the Tuna Stack at Rainbow Bridge, the Tarragon Chicken Salad at Marché Gourmet Deli, the House Sandwich at Knead Bakery, the Caprese at Papa Lennon’s, the Jamon Serrano at Azu and the Carnitas Torta at Diaz Bakery are all amazing, but let me tell you about a few other gems.

Bonnie Lu’s Café
328 E. Ojai Avenue
            A quaint diner in the heart of the downtown arcade serves up the typical diner fare you would expect for breakfast and lunch, but with an Ojai spin. Most of the dishes are named after local celebrities (friends and family of the owners), including the Titus Scramble, made with egg whites, chicken breast, spinach and mushroom, and Bubba’s Benedict, served with sausage patties and poached eggs on flaky biscuits and topped with their hearty homemade sausage gravy. Lunchtime favorites include Joanne’s French Dip (I like it with turkey, but you can order beef if you prefer), Alicia’s Yuppie Hippie with no shortage of sprouts and veggies, and the one I dream about, Niles’ Monte Cristo with white bread, ham, turkey and Swiss, dipped in egg batter, fried until golden brown, dusted with powdered sugar and served with strawberry jam. A few dishes have yet to be named, so I’m sure there’s room for an RDJ special sandwich.

914 E. Ojai Avenue
A choice hangout for the local softballers, this casual sports bar at the far end of town has big screen TVs tuned to the big games, and they make their own dough and tomato sauce daily for their New York style thin crust pizzas. Their submarine sandwiches are all the rage because with any sub purchase, you can add a beer for a just a quarter. Now, that beer is limited to Budweiser, Bud Light or Coors Light, but you can certainly upgrade to any of their other 19 beers on tap. Popular sandwiches include the Club Double Decker one deck has turkey, ham and Swiss; another deck has bacon, lettuce and tomatoes – the Philly Cheesesteak, the Pesto Turkey Melt, and a traditional Central Coast institution, the Tri-Tip, marinated in their special Italian seasoning blend, slow cooked and bathed in barbecue sauce.

Ojai Coffee Roasting Co.
337 E. Ojai Avenue
            A coffee house is the last place I’d think of for a sandwich, and though they are best known for their small-batch in-house specialty coffee roasting, it’s the first place many of the locals think of for a great sandwich. With a lunch menu a mile long, some of the stand-outs include the Roast Beef and Brie, the Muffaletta with provolone, ham, salami and their own tapenade, and everyone’s favorite, the Messy Pita with turkey, onions, tomatoes, feta, greens and their own creamy yogurt tzatziki. This is the kind of place where if you’ve been in once, they’ll remember your name and what you ordered, and they’ll probably ask about your kids and your pets, too. It’s like most of the places in Ojai – you get treated just like a celebrity.

So what do you say, Mr. Downey? Will it be my sister’s microwaved turkey sandwich, my husband’s Bacon, Lettuce and Awesome!, or a proper sit-down at one of Ojai’s finest establishments? We’ll let you decide, but if it’s OK with you, we’ll get the check.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Grocery Store Dining

As published in Ojai Quarterly Spring 2013 Issue

I don’t like grocery shopping. I’m not good at it. I get lost in the condiments aisle, picking up each bottle and jar to feel its weight in my hands, noticing every curve, pondering its handling and ergonomics and wondering how it will look next to its counterparts taking up space in the door shelves of my refrigerator. I scrutinize the ingredients for too much sodium and words I can’t begin to pronounce, and mentally calculate the price per ounce before ruling it out and moving onto the next bottle. By the time I choose what I think is the perfect salad dressing, I realize I haven’t seen my husband since we walked in the door. I waltz through the aisles, stopping at the butters, repeating the whole sorted process.       
By the time I find Bill, he’s already at the checkout stand, shaking his head at me. He shows me the butter he already bought – the same one that took me an eternity to choose – and reminds me that he’s making the salad dressing from scratch. Of course! He always makes it from scratch.
The truth is, he hates it when I shop with him. I’m not on task. For me, it’s about discovering and exploring. For him, it’s all business. Get in, scoop, get out. And he never forgets the reusable bags. I’m the one who holds up the line and says, “No, no bag for me, I’ll be right back.” Yeah, I’m that person.
So most every Sunday, he gladly leaves me at home to write and heads out on a short mission to shop for the week’s groceries. He prefers to shop at Starr, because, he says, he can count on ample parking, wide carpeted aisles and Bob, the same produce guy who’s been there for years. He keeps his head down, grabs the basics and gets home in time for whatever televised sporting event has his attention this week.
On the other hand, in my discovering and exploring, I’ve come to find that Ojai’s independent grocery stores offer something you can’t get at the big chains: an alternative dining option. You read that right. You can dine at the grocery store, and we’ve got some gems. In addition to the old-school macaroni and cheese and fried chicken you’ll find at Bill’s favorite store, Starr Market, our three other independent grocers offer their own signature flavors.

The Farmer and the Cook
339 El Roblar Drive
            The local hippie market in the small enclave of Meiners Oaks sells fresh-from-their-farm produce and basic organic staples, but, best of all, they have a café featuring recipes inspired by their weekly harvests. The menu offers Mexican specialties for breakfast, lunch and dinner, including huevos rancheros, huaraches, raw tacos and tamales. Tortillas are hand-rolled and salsas are made from scratch. A self-serve, pay-by-the-weight soup and salad bar is great if you’re in a hurry. On weekends, hand-thrown pizzas with fresh herbs and vegetables, and organic beer and wine are added into the mix. Everything is homemade and organic. Order at the counter, grab some utensils and make your way to a rustic table with mismatched chairs indoors or out. Don’t forget dessert. I repeat, do not forget dessert. The bakery case is the big attraction here, with vegan, raw and gluten-free baked goods that will make you wonder what all the fuss is about butter and eggs.

Rainbow Bridge
211 East Matilija Street
          Think of it as an upscale hippie market if you want. Fancy, perhaps. I don’t know, it just seems more shiny, and the cars in their parking lot look like they just came from the carwash. Tucked behind the downtown arcade, Rainbow Bridge is a natural foods market offering a wide range of fresh produce, sustainably-raised meats and specialty packaged health foods. It’s the only market in town with a vitamins manager, who oversees an entire aisle of homeopathics, supplements and herbal remedies. The personal-care aisle includes chemical-free cosmetics, deodorants, lotions and oils. The tea aisle is a sight to behold. A deli counter in back offers a hot case brimming with hearty selections for breakfast, lunch and dinner, including lasagna (if the butternut squash lasagna is there, order it), baked chicken, grilled salmon, sautéed vegetables, stews, casseroles and homemade soups. The oatmeal pancake, as big as a dinner plate, is so popular you’ll have to get there early before it runs out. Sandwiches (try the avocado melt or the tuna on squaw bread), salads, burritos, juices and smoothies can be ordered to-go or dine-in (ample seating is available inside and out). Grab-and-go items include sandwiches and salads made fresh daily. Rainbow Bridge is my idea of fast food whenever I want a quick healthy meal.

Westridge Market
802 E. Ojai Avenue
          On the east end of town, a flaming grill in front of the store cooks up the most mouth-watering tri-tip you’ll ever have. Originally established in the late fifties as a meat locker for local ranchers, Westridge has managed to maintain their reputation for offering quality meats, and they’ve got a real, honest-to-goodness butcher counter at the back of the store to prove it. There, you can order premium cuts of beef, lamb, pork and poultry by the pound, or just hold your thumb and forefinger out to show how thick you like your steaks cut. They’ve also got what I think is the most genius offering in town: thick-cut smoked bacon by the slice. A grab-and-go deli case houses an irresistible tomato/basil/mozzarella panino, their famous (and messy) tri-tip barbecue burrito and an assortment of sandwiches, wraps and sides. Underneath you’ll find the usual accompaniments: chips, cookies, fruit and, of course, splits of Veuve Clicquot French Champagne (Westridge boasts a terrific wine selection). The pièce de résistance at the sandwich counter is the Westridge burger to-go. Ground fresh twice daily, the 80/20 all-beef patty is hand-formed when you order, seasoned with their special herb and spice blend, and cooked to your liking while you shop. Served on a fresh brioche bun, this burger weighs in at a hefty two-thirds of a pound (you can order a petite quarter-pounder if you prefer – you are charged by the weight). Unwrap it and devour it at one of their outside tables, or do as I do and take it home to eat over the kitchen sink.

Keep your eyes open at the grocery store. You’re sure to discover a gem just around the corner from the salad dressings in the condiments aisle.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Shaken Not Spilled

As published in Ventana Monthly, February 2013

Sommelier Michael Denney uncorks a new use for the humble rubber band.
By Lisa Snider

Photography by Mariana Schulze
I’d watched him with an intense curiosity over the years as he sauntered in and out of the arched barrel door with trays of wine. A couple of years ago, I finally got up the nerve to ask if he ever allows guests into the cellar. With a smile, he proudly escorted me into a room roughly the size of a shoebox, where some 5,000 bottles are stacked floor to ceiling (many are, in fact, strapped to the ceiling) using a network of colorful rubber bands. It’s an impression that stays with me to this day.
Sommelier Michael Denney started pouring wine at the Ranch House in 1980, after pulling the late shift as a bartender for a few years at the Ojai Valley Inn. “I wouldn’t get off work until two in the morning,” he recalled.
A friend heard his laments and encouraged him to take a wine steward job at the historic restaurant, a destination for wine connoisseurs since 1953. But Denny was mainly drawn by the lure of work hours that got him home before midnight.
Without any specialized training, he acquired his wine knowledge on the job. “In those days, we’d have up to five wine stewards on the floor,” he explained, “and every Saturday night, we’d pull out six or seven wines and bag them up.” The stewards were expected to spend 15 or 20 minutes alone with the wines making their own personal notes. They couldn’t see the labels until they were done. “When you compare things side by side like that, you learn really quickly.”
Now, he says, they do it a little differently: “We taste every night instead of once a week. We play a game. What would you be willing to pay for this wine? What am I tasting? What does it remind me of?”
Wine, he says, mirrors scores of other flavors, and so he encourages his staff to seek out those comparisons. “A banana tastes like a banana. You’ll never get a little apple or a little blackberry out of a banana. And you’ll never get banana out of a blackberry. They taste like what they are. But wine imitates thousands of flavors, and that’s what’s so fascinating about it,” he said.
Denney feels that so much of enjoying wine is noticing its subtleties, which is something he not only shares with his staff, but his customers, too. “If you’re paying attention, it’s really fascinating.”
With arguably the best wine list in the Tri-Counties, featuring 700 selections on 53 pages, Denney has, over his 32 years at the Ranch House, successfully evolved his award-winning list to suit new trends as well as the recent economic downturn. “When I started buying the wines, we only had 250 on the list,” he explained. “At one time, we had as many as 900. With the recession, I scaled it down to 700, which is still a big list.”
As a result, Denney has become more discerning about what goes on that list, no longer buying a trusted purveyor’s entire line, but instead looking for the exceptional gems. “Sometimes I taste something that’s so good, it deserves to be on the list. And there are those wines out there that remind you how good wine can be. That’s what I’m looking for.”
He’s also keenly aware of how different the customers’ preferences are today. “People used to be more interested in vertical selections of Bordeauxs,” he said, “but those have priced themselves out of the market we have here in Ojai. This isn’t Las Vegas or Paris. People [today] don’t seem to require drinking older wines, as they might have at one time, because palates now are geared toward California and younger wines.”
Denney’s list seems daunting, perhaps intimidating, but he’ll be quick to tell you it offers something for everyone’s taste and budget, with prices starting at just 25 dollars. “We like to keep our wine mark-up low,” he said. “We want to see people enjoy the wine, and we want them to come back.”
It’s a handful of bottles hovering above the thousand-dollar mark that raises eyebrows, and although those bottles don’t sell very often, customers expect to see them on the list. And once in a while, one of those rare bottles gets dusted off and uncorked. “A year ago last summer a guy came in and bought several,” Denney recalled. “He drank one here and took some with him.”
Among the cellar’s high-end vintages are a 1953 Chateau Cheval Blanc for $1,950 and a 1986 Chateau Petrus Bordeaux for $2,200. Once in a blue moon, customers will let Denney sample their wine. He stills remembers one of his first nights on the floor; the diners offered him a taste of a 1966 Chateau d’Yquem, long considered the finest dessert wine in France. “It’s a transcendent experience, just because it just goes on and on and on on your palate, and the flavors are myriad and magnificent.”
Every bottle Denney delivers to the table comes with a story and his verbal tasting notes. At age 65, he says though his memory may fail him with other details, it’s reliably accurate when it comes to wine. “Wine, at this point, is probably the one thing I can still remember. I remember what things taste like.”

And he remembers the stories that came with the wine. Like the time he accidentally sprayed Pol Roger Champagne all over Herb Alpert and his wife. Or the time Alan Hooker, the restaurant’s original owner, fell into the creek. And he can tell you anything you want to know about every bottle on his list.

“I think the stories behind the wine are interesting,” said Denney. “Things that interest you are easy to remember. It’s worthwhile, and that’s how you make it more enjoyable for the customer, by telling them the story. They get into it more; they pay more attention.”

He also remembers the 1994 Northridge earthquake. “I went to my kids’ bedrooms and saw that they were OK, and the next thing I thought about was the wine room.”

Though only one bottle was lost, it spurred him to go to work on the web of rubber bands now crisscrossing the bins. “It was the cheapest, easiest thing to do,” he explained. “It works.”

For Denney, it’s the stories, memories, and wines all coming together that give him pause to share his epiphany:

“It’s a relationship. And [it becomes] a three-way relationship: the people, the server, and the wine itself. That’s the fun part of this job—getting someone excited about something I’m excited about.” 
* * *
The Ranch House
102 Besant Rd., Ojai

Ojai's Sushi Joints

As published in Ojai Quarterly Winter 2012 Issue

Photo by Bill Snider
Let’s be honest; I learned to eat sushi as a college co-ed just so I could guzzle sake and giant bottles of Kirin. I batted my eyes and charmed the sushi chef – who never asked for my I.D. – with, “dozo” and “arigato,” while stabbing my chopsticks unsuccessfully at a California roll. He urged me to practice, yet took pity on me every single time, and with some wadded up paper and a rubber band, he fashioned a spring action utensil just for me. Barely 18, this sushi joint on the beach in San Diego soon became my version of Cheers, where everyone knew me as “Risa.”

Eventually I mustered up the courage (maybe it was liquid courage) to sample more ambitious (and raw) sushi dishes, like unagi (eel), hamachi (yellowtail) and my favorite to this day: maguro (tuna). I drew the line – and still do – at rubbery and chewy tako (octopus). There’s still hope for me, I guess.

Readers of this column know the best cook in my house is my husband, for I am just a lowly food writer. While he isn’t one to bust out the nori and the bamboo roller, he does make a to-die-for ahi dish. He selects beautiful sashimi-grade ahi from either Sea Fresh in downtown Ojai or Ideal’s convenient drive-up window in Mira Monte. After a quick sear in blazing hot coconut oil in a cast iron pan, he slices the ahi to reveal the cool ruby red center and serves it up with cucumbers shaved thin on the mandolin and dressed with rice wine vinegar, sesame oil and soy sauce. The whole dish gets a liberal sprinkling of white and black sesame seeds (toasted or not).

When we feel the pull for authentic sushi, within a couple of miles three sushi restaurants in the valley offer up a diverse selection of raw and cooked Japanese cuisine. All offer the ubiquitous California rolls, beer, wine and sake, with lots of surprises mixed in.

11400 N. Ventura Avenue

On the way out of town, tucked between a gas station and a chiropractor’s office, you’ll find a sort of graceful roadhouse version of a sushi restaurant. The front porch offers alfresco dining, but walk inside and you’ll be assailed with gregarious voices booming, “Irasshaimase!” which I think means “Welcome!” or “Come on in!” Servers wear T-shirts with various “Miso” sayings, including, “Miso Happy,” and, “Miso Hungry” – all for sale, of course. Most nights you’ll meet the owner, Eddie, who may surprise you and join you for a beer (or a shot). In addition to an impressive sushi menu, teriyakis, tempuras, noodle dishes and a teppanyaki menu (ask to sit in the small teppan room) are also available. Favorite sushi rolls include the Red Dragon with unagi, crabmeat, avocado and spicy tuna on the outside. My favorite roll is the Wild Thing, stuffed with crabmeat and avocado, and topped with salmon and baked with a sweet mayonnaise drizzle (a local named Debbie has her name attached to a variation of this roll with spicy tuna inside instead of crab – just ask). Vegetarians will love the Green Veg roll with cucumber, sprouts, avocado, seaweed salad, gobo and pickled daikon. Don’t worry about dessert, because your check comes with luscious cheesecake bites.

967 E. Ojai Avenue

It’s not as casual and laid-back as Sakura, and the downtown Ojai location is certainly part of its appeal. Indoor seating includes the obligatory sushi bar seats, and a comfortable and charming patio awaits outside. The menu offers a dizzying number of selections (there are more than 50 sushi rolls to choose from), and several salads and appetizers to start. The mixed sunomono is our favorite – a cucumber salad lightly dressed with sesame oil and rice wine vinegar and served with thin slices of crab, octopus (which I always push over to Bill) and shrimp. Don’t miss the Baked Lobster roll - stuffed with crabmeat, cucumber and avocado, rolled with rice paper, topped with lobster, green onions and tobiko (flying fish roe), and doused with a delicious warm barbecue sauce. The Starfish roll is another standout - stuffed with spicy crab, cucumber, avocado, asparagus and tempura shrimp, wrapped with tuna, yellowtail and more avocado, and drizzled with a light dressing. The expansive menu also includes teriyaki, katsu, tempura, donburi and yakisoba dishes, as well as soups and udons.

Sea Fresh
533 E. Ojai Avenue

With a newly renovated and expanded layout - including a gorgeous patio for gazing at the Pink Moment - and a full liquor license, the hip sushi bar scene at Sea Fresh is a bit of a departure from the traditional experience afforded at Hakane and Sakura, but quality and creativity is never spared. And thanks to the family’s fishing vessel anchored in Ventura, neither is freshness, with primary catches including swordfish, halibut, white seabass, salmon, snapper and shark arriving daily. While you will find typical fish house staples like clam chowder, bouillabaisse and fish and chips, dishes like macadamia-crusted halibut and wasabi-crusted ahi give the menu a more contemporary slant. The sushi bar is the main draw for me, though, with the spicy garlic tuna roll a crowd favorite. My personal favorite is the spicy tuna tartare, layered with hot sesame oil, sesame seeds, avocado, crunchies, radish sprouts and wasabi dressing. The Tara roll is a sight to behold, artfully prepared with tempura shrimp, krab and avocado, and topped with spicy mayonnaise, eel sauce and Sriracha sauce.

Even though Ojai is 15 miles from the sea, we are fortunate to have so many choices for fresh and tasty seafood and sushi. Just remember, practice makes perfect with those chopsticks!