|Follow the oyster shell trail to the Jolly Oyster. Photo by Bill Snider|
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.
The oyster taco featuring a homemade GMO-free corn tortilla filled with three panko-fried oysters, pickled cabbage, arugula and a saffron-paprika aioli.
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.
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.
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.