Agave Maria's striving for a unique concept
By D.K. Crawford 06/02/2011
Restaurant & Cantina
106 S. Montgomery St.
I’d been dying to eat at the oh-so-cleverly named Agave Maria’s since it opened about a month ago. Owned by powerhouse Mary Trudeau, who brought with her one of the chefs from Rainbow Bridge, Agave Maria’s mission (as stated on its website) is to feature fresh, wholesome ingredients.
When we arrived at 5:45 p.m., the patio was alive with voices and children running around the fountain. Festive friends of mine were there, enjoying dinner. We followed their ebullient lead and ordered “Pixie”rita Margaritas made from local Ojai tangerine juice and Azul silver tequila. “Look at the tequila list in the back of the menu — it reads like a list of Saints!” exclaimed one of them. Indeed, there are at least 40 offerings of sipping tequilas, including three organic choices from Casa Noble and a Platinum Jose Cuervo.
We’d arrived hungry, so I immediately ordered an appetizer. The menu has mostly classic Mexican dishes with a few twists. When I asked the waitress for recommendations, she confessed she hadn’t tasted anything on the menu but then said certain items looked good. We ordered the nachos grande with shredded beef and asked for another menu as we’d only received one.
Meanwhile, our friends insisted we taste their carne asada plate and chile relleno. The asada was tender with a deep, black charred flavor. The relleno was a fresh spicy chile with a medium-thick batter on it, delicious. They left shortly afterward, thrilled, and swore they’d return.
Our final dining companion arrived and we tried to order a drink for her. But the first person to appear at our table couldn’t take drink orders and the waitress, along with the menus we’d tried to secure, couldn’t be found.
I passed my friend the house-made corn chips and salsa. “Hmm,” she pondered after a few bites. I took a bite and found the salsa unusual; it was thick, more like tomato paste.
Our piled-high nachos arrived on a large oval plate. A layer of impenetrable cheese sat on top of the nachos but we found success in removing the chips from the sides of the dish and sort of breaking off parts of the cheese and meat mixture. There were refried beans and shredded beef, a large scoop of sour cream and guacamole, and a hint of pico de gallo. The dish was huge and could easily be an appetizer for six if you didn’t want to fill up before dinner.
There was a steady stream of customers filtering in the entire evening. Other than the outside patio, there is a covered area with cantaloupe walls and a turquoise exposed-beam ceiling that has a cozy fireplace, couches and some tables. I poked my head into the bar and dining room to find a buzzing hive of activity. I started to understand why our waitress disappeared; this new Ojai hotspot appeared understaffed, especially for a Friday evening.
I started with perhaps one of the most unusual dishes on the menu — the shrimp with coconut and lime especial. It was a saffron-hued, gorgeous plate of rice circled by medium-sized prawns with their tails still on. It was delicious and creamy with a hint of heat and tasted exactly like Thai red curry. It wasn’t what I was expecting as a special at a Mexican restaurant but it was quite tasty and everything was cooked perfectly.
I next tasted the cheese enchilada. It also had plenty of cheese on top and was surrounded by a deep red tomato sauce. My first bite, I got the creamy cheese on the inside, the corn flavor of the tortilla and a bitter aftertaste from the tomato sauce as though it had been cooked in black iron or made with seeds.
Next, I sampled my friend’s Pacific red snapper ceviche made with lemon, onions, cilantro, cucumbers, organic tomatoes and diced jalapeños. The first sensation I noticed was that the fish was pungent as it passed under my nose. The second flavor I got was the pronounced citrus. I could barely taste the fish and it was cut into small pieces that made it texturally disappear.
Finally, we tried the asada salad with paprika dressing. It was the same meat I’d tried earlier on my friend’s plate but it was sliced on a bed of romaine, carrots, tomatoes and jicama. The paprika dressing was sweet with a hint of smoky paprika. It kind of reminded me of French dressing with a kick. The salad had the same ingredients as the dinner salad that accompanied the entrees, only a larger version. I wanted it to have more oomph rather than be the bigger brother of what someone received earlier before his meal. The meat was good and the ingredients were fresh. All the basic components were there but the salad didn’t sing.
For dessert, there were churros and leche cake but the waitress didn’t recommend them. I so appreciate honesty from a waitress but I ultimately felt discouraged because, first, she didn’t know the menu; and, then, what she did know, she didn’t care for.
Agave Maria’s has a beautiful, revitalized environment, perfect location and a brilliant concept. Who wouldn’t want to taste fresh, wholesome Mexican food? I ultimately hope it takes the amazing ingredients found in Ojai to create dishes with more nuance and intrigue, encourages the servers to taste them, and has more staff available on weekends.To read more of DK Crawford go to www.thefoodsavant.blogspot.com.