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Sunday, August 19, 2012

Decent Italian, Out-of-This-World Strawberry Rhubarb Pie and Crustiest Bread Around: The Best of Ojai (near Santa Barbara)

I wasn't sure what to expect when we took a road trip to Ojai for the weekend, but it turned out to be all that it was cracked up to be -- relaxing and quaint, with a few unforgettable gems thrown in. Our first stop was OMG! - Osteria Monte Grappa, a cute little Italian place with a nice outdoor patio that purports to serve authentic Italian food. The pan fried calamari in a tomato sauce with a slice of polenta sporting the perfect grill marks was ok but the squid wasn't top quality.
I liked that the bread was warm although in Italy serving fresh, warm bread usually seemed to be the last thing on restaurateurs' minds. Anyway, we used the bread as sponges to absorb the tomato juice in the calamari dish.

It was fun trying some of the local wines -- an Ojai rose that I craved due to the severe heat. It was 7pm and barely under 100 degrees!

The first pleasant surprise was the grilled beet salad, which came with radicchio, green beans and shaved parmesan. I usually like my radicchio grilled so its bitterness is tempered but the revelation was definitely the grilled beets. The tiny beets themselves were bursting with flavor. They seemed like they were just picked in the restaurant's own garden. They were naturally sweet but they also had smoky undertones from the grill, which first made me happy but then made me wonder if they had added any liquid smoke to infuse a smoky flavor.

Nah. It's got to be natural, right? Well, I'll never know. But they weren't smoky to the point of being overpowering. They were just right and added a whole new dimension to the beet salad I had never tasted before. Brownie points.

The first pasta, penne with eggplant, tomatoes and chunks of burrata was just average. I liked its lightness.

Revelation #2 came with the fettuccine pesto with monkfish, green beans (OMG evidently likes its green beans -- never seen so much of it in Italian food before) and bell peppers. What I liked about it was that it didn't taste too heavy like most pestos I've had. I've had very few pestos that I loved. This was came very close. Purists may say it was too watery or that one couldn't taste the basil as much. Guilty on all accounts. But I actually liked the subtle basil taste. One of my dinner companions and I were positive this pesto had more than basil -- we tasted mint, for instance. But the menu cryptically presented the dish as "local herbs pesto," whatever that means. We asked the hostess and server but they insisted it was mostly basil, maybe with some parsley. Parsley?! We swore we detected mint in there but apparently none was used. In any case, I had never had pesto with fish, only solo, with veggies or shrimp. So it was a nice combo that I hope to have again.

And now, for the third and last revelation -- the cheesecake. I've never had cheesecake in Italy so not sure how authentic it was and it wasn't the most attractive-looking piece of cake. But oh, it was the perfect end to a good meal. It wasn't too sweet, which is always a pet peeve of mine for desserts. The raspberry sauce was subtle and the cheese flavor was just enough to appreciate the fact that it's a cheesecake. Italians seem to use ricotta for their cheesecakes but not sure ricotta was used for this version. In any case, it was solid.

The sorbets were good too although not exactly revelatory. The lime sorbet was the best, followed by peach.

Definitely a place I'd like to return to, save for the weird server who carded us (normally would have been flattered but he was creepy!) when we ordered wine and gratuitously kept calling us "love." You're not in London and you're not English, dude!

The next day, we discovered some amazing gems at the Farmers' Market despite the scorching weather. We managed to get the sweetest yellow peaches and juicy plums from the stands. I got the most delicious crusty bread from New Vineland Bread, which is part of a well-known winery in Lompoc that sounds very promising (note to self: must visit soon). I also stopped by Mt. Olive Company's stand, which had the most amazing jams. So amazing, in fact, that I got the peach and nectarine one spiked with chili sauce.

The kicker was the strawberry rhubarb pie from Marcie's Pies/Jimenez Family Farm that was, quite simply, out of this world. I'm a huge pie snob and this was one was, again, not too sweet, and the fruit filling was clearly made with the best quality ingredients where you can really taste the sweetness. You know how many fruit just don't taste like anything anymore? Well, you could definitely taste these berries and rhubarb. This was my very first rhubarb pie and it was divine.

I mean, take one look at this pie. It's a veritable beauty! I just learned much to my delight that I won't have to trek all the way to Ojai to have another one of Marcie's Pies because they come out to the Farmers' Markets in Santa Monica and Hollywood. Woo hoo!! Big thumbs up.

After nearly melting away in the sun, we headed to Oak Grill at the massively expansive Ojai Valley Inn & Spa to seek refuge in the wonderfully air conditioned interior.

The bread was freshly baked and warm. The butter was notably good. I had the slow-cooked barbecued braised beef sandwich that came with roasted green chiles, arugula, pepper jack cheese and chipotle aioli on a toasted potato bread bun. It was excellent. Picture-perfect grounds. Impeccable service. All this doesn't come cheap but lunch is more affordable than dinner.  Plus, you get the view.

Try going to Ojai for a weekend getaway. It's close enough and its greenery and remote feel still make you feel like you've escaped the city.

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