Mex-Ital Photo by: Heber Pelayo Guests at La Valle can opt for Italian cuisine, like the linguine ai frutti di mare (literally, linguini with fruit of the sea), or Mexican, as shown here with Owner Maro Bello and his pollo en mole and taquitos dorados con consume.

A Mexican, Italian experience in Ojai

Two distinct flavors

By Nicholas Franklin 11/29/2012

La Valle Restaurant  
1002 E. Ojai Ave., Suite CD

“What? Another Mexican/Italian place?” That was the buzz around Ojai when news of La Valle Restaurant’s opening started to circulate. There was already a load of choices in town for either cuisine. There was confusion, too — would it be Mexican slash Italian or Mexican hyphen Italian? As in chile verde and lasagna, or chile verde lasagna?

These thoughts were running through my head as we approached the modest building by Soule Park Golf Course, which housed The Garden Terrace for years. One thing I knew for sure, though, was that whatever the approach, the food would probably be good. Or very good, as Chef/Co-Owner Marco Bello was most recently chef at the popular Osteria Monte Grappa in Ojai.

After being led through the cozy dining room, we were seated next to the warm fireplace. The interior hasn’t received any personalizing touches from the new owners yet, but the place exudes charm as is. With the fireplace emanating heat and fresh scarlet roses atop clean white tablecloths, we were surprised to find ourselves on a date, even though we came on a whim, wearing sweatshirts.

Moments after seating, we were given some chips and salsa to munch on while leafing through the menu. And with that came the beginning of a somewhat jarring discrepancy. I love chips and salsa, but it felt weird munching tortilla chips while browsing through a menu with dishes carrying names like linguine alle cozze e vongole. If that seems petty, it was stranger to go from the delicious Ruffino Chianti our server recommended to eating salsa with notes of cilantro and raw onion.

The menu overall displays little effort to fuse Italian and Mexican. That will be fine to many people; the variety might even be seen as a plus. I was a little disappointed, though. I was dying to see things like osso buco tacos, or pappardelle al pastor. That kind of approach would’ve made the menu stand out among the competition.

Browsing revealed the best example of a fusion to be the mixed mushroom empanadas, which feature what seem to be crimini and portabella mushrooms sautéed with garlic and shallots and stuffed into a homemade tortilla drizzled with truffle oil.

The empandas were delicious, an example of shining through simplicity. The flavor was uncluttered, with the mushrooms taking center stage. The garlic or the truffle oil could easily have overpowered, but neither did. And somehow they had managed to coax the tortilla into flaky crispiness that you’d think could only come from a flour dough.

As soon as I saw pollo en mole on the menu, I was sold. Mole is one of those things that warms your bones on a cold night, and La Valle’s homemade mole was no exception. The chicken breast was pounded thin and drowning in the sauce, which was earthy and subtle with a perfect balance of cocoa, spices, chilis and nuttiness. The homemade tortillas that came with the mole were especially impressive. They had a fresh, unadulterated corn flavor that tasted more like hominy than any store-bought corn tortilla.

My companion ordered the farfalle alla puttanesca con gamneretti, a take on one of my personal favorites. Puttanesca is a rich pasta dish that fuses crushed red pepper fire, the acidity of capers and a deep brininess from olives and anchovies. This preparation featured a large handful of shrimp, which were plump, snappy and saturated with garlic. They were devoured.

But the sauce was a little out of balance. The conservative use of red pepper flakes brought out the anchovy, and leaving the kalamata olives whole made them brine bombs. While we did polish it off before the end of the night, neither of us thought the puttanesca came together with the same finesse as the mole. And the  slices of bread with butter that came with it seemed like an afterthought compared to the delicious homemade tortillas.

Though teetering on the brink of stuffed, our server tempted us into the tiramisu. Another personal favorite, this was no let-down. It was light and fluffy, with no soggy ladyfingers but with a nice boozy funk.

Our unexpected date experience was also the product of the great service, with staff that was observant without being overwhelming. I was surprised when our wine was finished because I never had a chance to feel the weight of the bottle. And late in the evening I could tell the staff was mindful about the noise from their side-work. Which is awesome, considering this is a place where nearly everything is less than 20 bucks.

It’ll be interesting to see how this restaurant develops as it moves through and beyond its first season. Will it be embraced as a place that offers something for everybody at affordable prices? Or will having a muddled and mostly traditional identity hold it back or force it to evolve?

We left not knowing whether to say gracias or grazie so we stuck with a sincere “thank you.” We had cleaned our plates, had a surprisingly romantic experience, and look forward to visiting again soon.


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