January is Restaurant month in California promoting “culinary travel”. As Jan 20-29 is Restaurant Week for the cities of Ventura and Oxnard in Ventura County, California, on Tuesday Jan. 24, Que Syrah Sue and I decided to hit up two of them: tried and true Paradise Pantry in downtown Ventura by the San Buenaventura Mission and the brand new Cork located on Main and Santa Cruz in midtown Ventura, both offering $20 dine and wine deals. Find other Restaurant Weeks in California here.
We arrived at Paradise Pantry before 5pm on a Tuesday, but they had a decent crowd already there because Paradise Pantry’s small bites, wines by the glass, and wine flights lends itself to every thing from a very late lunch to happy hour to an early dinner to a light dinner to a snack and a chat with a friend.
The small, narrow venue is warm and inviting with a small bar in the back, a seating area by the window with informal, comfy seating, and two tables by the other windows so you can see out to Main Street and the Mission. Small tables can be combined to accommodate larger groups. Bright artwork decorates the original brick walls. Through a wide doorway, you can access the retail shop with two large cold cases for cheese and pate, plus tightly packed rows of bottles with an emphasis on local but also including carefully curated representatives from around the world.
For Restaurant Week’s $20 deal, Paradise Pantry is offering a half “house” sandwich with a side of “standard” mac n cheese with a three glass wine flight: J Wilkes 2014 Pinot Blanc from Santa Maria, Perfect Left 2013 Pinot Noir from Santa Barbara County, and Bodega de Edgar 2012 “Empower” from the Central Coast. We also went for the “extra pour” (1.5 ounces) of Deovlet 2014 “Sonny Boy” from Happy Canyon in Santa Barbara for $6. We split all of the pours.
Because of the wines, we chose to split the smoked ham sandwich with gruyere cheese and tomato clove conserve. We loved the rich smoky quality of this sandwich and it paired well with all of the wines as did the creamy, flavorful, soothing mac n cheese. The plate also had some delicious crisp pickles and some rather sad red grapes. I would have preferred a small side salad and I’m a big fan of their house vinegrate.
J Wilkes 2014 Pinot Blanc from Santa Maria $20
This pinot blanc (pinot bianco on the bottle) is now made by Wes Hagen who took over there when he left Clos de Pepe a few years ago. Nice and clean, it’s not overpowering with citrus or minerals, but very even tempered, subtle, complex, classy and elegant with citrus blossoms and peach skin. This is a very nice wine for $20.
Perfect Left 2013 Pinot Noir from Santa Barbara County $24
This pinot noir was incredible with the sandwich. Not heavy or heavily oaked, this pinot noir showcases delicate fruit with an elegant clean minerality that cuts through the richness of the sandwich and the mac n cheese. This is a very nice pinot noir for under $25.
Bodega de Edgar 2012 “Empower” from the Central Coast $19
Another nice wine for the price, this blend of 54% syrah and 46% grenache has medium body, bright fruit from the grenache, and a muskiness. I also got some distasteful moldiness on the finish at first that, fortunately, was drawn out by the food and time in the glass.
Deovlet 2014 “Sonny Boy” from Happy Canyon in Santa Barbara $45
We loved the velvety, silky mouthfeel of this 60% merlot and 40% cabernet sauvignon blend. Nice cherry nose and on the palate dark chocolate covered fresh cherry. The salty mac n cheese brought the fruit out in the wine in a delightful way. Lots of complexity in this wine as befitting the price; fun to experience a high end wine without having to buy the whole bottle!
Overall, it was an enjoyable experience. We love going to Paradise Pantry for specialty cheese to take home when we do wine tastings as well as for lunch and other bites. It is a bit pricey but the quality of the food is consistently very high. We thought they should have given patrons a choice of any sandwich as well as a choice of any mac n cheese, and having a small salad on the plate would have been pretty and it would have shown people new to Paradise or who hadn’t been there in a while a better sense of what they offer. Still, we left quite satisfied with our experience.
Cork, located about a mile way from Paradise Pantry in midtown Ventura on the corner of Santa Cruz and Main, is literally the new kid on the block — if you see Main Street as a very long block! But they have a few miles to go to catch up to their older sibling.
I’ve been excited to try Cork since it opened: a food and wine place a 20 minute walk to and from my house? Sign me up! So when I saw they were participating in Restaurant Week, Sue and I figured this would be the time: surely they’d be showcasing their best. While the regular menu looked tempting, particularly the Limoncello Black Mussels, the salads and the highly recommended by several people as not to miss flatbreads topped with carnitas or Meyer lemon and prosciutto, we opted for the Restaurant Week menu of three empanadas with a side salad and a glass of wine from Old Soul Pinot Noir from Lodi for $20.
Cork is very enticing inside: nice big windows let in lots of light and street scene people watching in one room while the other room is darker and cozier and with windows in the front peering out. Cozy couches invite you to sit down and stay awhile which contrast with bar height tables and chairs covered in classy rich brown marble. When we arrived, a woman was sitting at the bar, a couple were enjoying the couches, and a birthday group was arriving to sit together at a long table; more and more people arrived until it was surprisingly full for a Tuesday night by the time we left an hour or so later around 7pm. This definitely seems like a locals haunt with folks stopping by on their way home from work for a glass and a gab.
From the exhaustive list of empanada choices recited by our patient waiter, I struggled to find three that enticed me enough to choose; Sue was open to whichever ones I wanted to try. We finally ended up with a breakfast one with potatoes, eggs, and bacon; one stuffed with juicy carnitas; and the third had a bland, gummy and dry mac n cheese made with orange cheese. I wish I’d chosen the vegetarian one filled with spinach, broccoli, carrots, and onion. In contrast, we found quite flavorful the three sauces served with the food: chimichurri, spicy chipotle cherry and a semi-sweet “yellow” salsa of corn with lots of onions and some red bell peppers. The empanadas are beautifully made and come from Nonna’s in LA, but while they came to the table warm and I assume fresh, they didn’t give me the satisfaction that I expect from the crust of a meat pie. While the salads on the menu look interesting, the greens on our plate could have been perkier and the dressing was too oily and blah.
While Cork offers a small but reasonably priced interesting selection of California wines by the bottle and by the glass, (with the exception of Champagne because people requested it) and one of our favorite Chardonnays is in the list (Kessler-Hawk at only $11 a glass!), we went for the Restaurant Week selection: a choice between a Pinot Noir or a Chardonnay from Old Soul of Lodi. Old Soul is one of several labels made by Oak Ridge Winery; they also produce Moss Roxx (read about their zinfandel here) and the popular OZV (Old Vine Zin) and others.
We figured the Pinot Noir was a better bet to go with the empanadas but we had our trepidations about Pinot Noir from Lodi which is well known for Zinfandel and becoming recognized for other powerful red varietals… but not Pinot Noir. I tasted a lot of great wine from Lodi during last summer’s Wine Blogger’s Conference in Lodi but didn’t recall any Pinot Noir, and really didn’t remember tasting any wine from Old Soul either. When I saw the distinctive label, it did seem familiar, and I suspect I tasted the zin and maybe the chardonnay.
While dubious, we were assured that the Old Soul Pinot Noir flies off the shelf at Cork and is their most popular wine; it is also their cheapest with a bottle running $21 and a glass $7. Atypically, this Pinot Noir is not at all earthy and lacks that bright, fresh, wild fruit, often strawberry. Instead, this is more typical of other Lodi reds, and in fact I told Sue that I bet it was 75% PN and 25% zinfandel. When I checked the website, I found that I was right: it is blended with zin which they say gives it that Lodi character. It’s a bit smoky on the nose, and offers plentiful fruit on the palate with a medium body and decent acidity. Likely because of the zinfandel, it went fine with the carnitas, but didn’t really enhance the flavors of the empanadas and it fought with the sauces.
While we were not too impressed with the Restaurant Week choices, I would definitely return. Their wine list rotates every three weeks or so, and they have an exciting selection of beers (which I bet would go better with the empanadas). With their big screen TVs in each of the two rooms, this could be a good choice for us when my husband wants to watch the ballgame and not make dinner and I can meet him there when I am teaching late. I hope it is soon enough so that the Kessler-Hawk chardonnay is still on the list! Bet it would be fabulous with that lemon/proscuitto flatbread and one of the salads.
Overall, Cork is inexpensive and ready for your party. We promise to go back to Cork and let you know what we think in another report!
Some Musings on Restaurants and Restaurant Week
In the past, I remember Restaurant Week in Ventura as being an amazing opportunity to taste highlights from menus and get a chance to experience small tastes of dishes and to go both to favorite and new places. This time, it seems like many of the participants are pushing both an alcoholic beverage with a simple food item often the menu.
This could also be an observation about the state of restaurants in Ventura, and even beyond. We have lost our fine dining establishments with risk taking chefs; I’m thinking of Tim Kilcoyne’s Sidecar (he threw in the towel and started a food truck Scratch), and Brooks of Brooks, a location that now is home to Barrelhouse 101. In fact, we now have a plethora of expensive burger and brew places or breweries that have a food truck parked in their lot, as well as excellent (and busy!) Thai and Asian fusion restaurants. Yes Cafe Zack is still in business doing what they do best, but even my birthday dinner there the other day was not as good as it usually is and the wine list was pedestrian, especially the by the glass choices. I’m curious to see how Prime Steakhouse evolves when it moves from midtown to downtown Ventura.
Why did this happen? From some of my reading about costs (including this article), we are in transition. It is not sustainable for restaurants to do everything (like make their own ketchup and bread and charcuterie) and pay their staff a living wage and pay rent and buy organic and everything else that we’ve come to expect without paying a whole lot more. But we, the consumer, we are all being squeezed as well.
Something has to give. In this case, I guess it was getting an incredible deal of a meal during Restaurant Week in Ventura. Instead, we are getting a dollar or two off; in the restaurant business, a dollar or two off of $20 ticket means 10-20% — and that’s a lot. Maybe a limitation was that the restaurants all were asked to provide something for under $20. In Oxnard, participating restaurants offer ‘2 for $20’ or ‘$20 per person’ options also but they also have a ‘Premier Menu’ option including a special priced prix fixe menu and other options too. For example at Tierra del Sur at Herzog Winery, if you spend $50.00, you receive a $10.00 off discount when you mention Dine and Discover Oxnard Restaurant Week or California Restaurant Month. Perusing the Oxnard offerings, I’m wishing that Sue and I had headed over there. La Dolce Vita in Heritage Square has a 2 for $20 dinner, $20 dinner and a $38 dinner that look amazing.
So what’s the bottom line? Learn how to cook at home? Well there’s that. And you know if you read this blog that we do cook at home and we’ve learned a lot about cooking and food and wine pairing thanks to Sue’s love of cooking shows and willingness to experiment.
But it is really nice to go out to dinner and get taken care of–to have the white table cloths and nice silverware and nice china every once in a while and I hope that we will be able to support and sustain the restaurants that offer these features in Ventura County (and not just in Ojai and Westlake), and not have to travel to Santa Barbara or LA counties.
Really the bottom line is to support your locally owned restaurants. Give them a chance, and another chance. It is hard work. Show them some love. If you just want to go somewhere and have a glass of wine and some cheese, you have to be willing to help pay the rent and to pay for the person to deliver your wine and to pay for the person to wash your glass.
I’m curious what other people have observed, both locally, regionally, and nationally. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.