Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Ojai Pub-Grub Crawl

Finding OjaiTM: The eating and drinking of Ojai reveals tasty, thirsty underbelly

I love Ojai in the summertime.  Long hot days give way to cool evenings with gentle breezes.  Summer concerts under shady oaks in Libbey Bowl.  Tank tops, flip flops and tri-tip sandwiches from a roadside grill.  The Fourth of July parade.  And a perfectly chilled martini served alfresco from one of my favorite spots in downtown Ojai.

It’s time for a summer’s eve stroll down
Ojai Avenue
with my gal pal Lynn.  We will make our way on foot from one end of town to the other on a Finding Ojai mission in search of the best nosh and libations until we have our fill of a complete four course dinner; a pub/grub crawl twist on a progressive dinner, if you will.

To prepare for our progressive dine-around, Lynn and I dressed the part, ditching the stilettos in favor of comfortable walking shoes, brought our appetites and engaged our sense of spontaneity and adventure.

We started at the far end of downtown, past the arcade, where Laurel Moore, chef and owner of Azu has created the ultimate Spanish tapas menu, complemented by a well-rounded list of Spanish and California wines, and a full bar featuring specialty martinis.  The front door was open, allowing a gentle breeze to blow into the bar, where we found our seats and ordered the Fromage D'Affinois: a luscious slab of cheese, baked then drizzled with honey, sprinkled with spiced walnuts and served with crusty sourdough.  To accompany our appetizer, we each ordered a martini.  I had a Hendrick’s gin martini, a tad on the dirty side.  Lynn ordered a pretty, pink Cosmopolitan Skyy vodka martini that was “not too sweet, light and refreshing."  Both were chilled to perfection; just what we needed to quench our thirst at the end of a hot summer day.
Azu, 457 E. Ojai Avenue, 640-7987,, open for dinner nightly 5:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m., lunch Monday through Saturday and brunch on Sunday
Alfresco dining: at cozy sidewalk tables.

We walked a block to the arcade where Brett and Suzy Johlfs’ intimate wine bar, Movino, serves small bites, cheese plates and salads.  Lynn had her sights set on the baked mushrooms stuffed with goat cheese and I decided on the spinach salad with feta, cherry tomatoes and vinaigrette, which, according to Brett, is an old family recipe, and it is absolutely delicious.  What’s great about Movino is the wine list, which features several “flights” served as 3 samples of 2-ounce pours.  We shared the “Only in Ojai” flight featuring Old Creek Ranch Sauvignon Blanc, Casa Barranca Pinot Noir (my favorite) and Ojai Vineyard Syrah.

Movino, 308 E Ojai Avenue, 646-1555, open weekdays 5:00 p.m. – midnight, Saturday 3:00 p.m. – 1:00 a.m. and Sunday 1:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m., live entertainment every Friday and Saturday night, and acoustic guitar every other Thursday evening.
Alfresco dining: on the rear patio overlooking the arcade fountain.

As the pink moment descended on the valley, we made our way down past the arcade and over to Pangea, a local favorite.  Joe, the owner/bartender, is always good for a story or two.  I once heard a regular patron say, “It’s the only place I know of where the bartender cries in your beer!”  It’s also the only place I know of in the valley where you can get Guinness or a hard cider on tap.

Lynn and I bellied up to the bar and chatted up a local, who also happens to be a famous Hollywood actor.  I think he got a kick out of the fact that Lynn had no clue who he was.  Chef Caleb was in the kitchen offering up a special of hempseed crusted tiger shrimp with jasmine rice, spinach and tomato.  Joe saw our puzzled faces and rattled off the many health benefits of certified organic hempseed, which is chock full of protein, essential fatty acids and Omega 3’s.  “It’s sooo Ojai,” I said, and ordered a plate for Lynn and I to split while Joe downed a shot and regaled us with a story about the defenestration of a patron on a particularly raucous night awhile back.  The shrimp was tasty and the toasted seeds added an unexpected nutty crunch.  And the banter with Joe and the locals was equally pleasing.

Pangea, 189 E Ojai Avenue, 640-8001, open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday (open later for cocktails), and a live band plays every Saturday night.
Alfresco dining: scattered and bench seating on the back covered patio.

It was getting late, and I knew we had better head over to our last stop before they rolled up the sidewalk at Feast Bistro.  Chef Susan Coulter’s new American cuisine has been a favorite for a year and a half now in the heart of the arcade.  And her partner, Beryl Schwartz, has become known for her fresh baked cookies.  We sat at a banquette and devoured a plate of ginger spice, lemon and chocolate chip cookies over lattes and quiet conversation while Susan and her Sous Chef, Mario, cooled down the burners for the night.

Feast Bistro,
254 East Ojai Avenue
, 640-9260, open Tuesday through Friday for lunch and dinner, and Sunday for brunch.
Alfresco dining: on the covered patio behind the arcade.

Four courses, four restaurants and three blocks later, I’m happy to report that the progressive dining concept has been perfected in downtown Ojai.  It’s a great way to spend a mid-summer night and soak up the local flavor that is uniquely Ojai.

Published in the Summer 2007 issue of the Ojai Valley Visitors Guide.