Eclectic international eats at Sugar Beets

By Allison Costa 12/23/2010

Sugar Beets
455 S. A St.
$14.25 - $18

My first interaction with Martin Ledesma was by way of the food at his Camarillo restaurant, Chili Peppers. Last year, I wrote about their decadent Friday night dinners, when the restaurant showcases its fancy side in the form of gourmet dishes alongside its regular Mexican fare. So I could hardly wait for the opening of Ledesma’s newest endeavor: Sugar Beets Restaurant in the heart of downtown Oxnard.

Though it sits in the space that used to be home to Casa Escobar, Ledesma has created a restaurant with an identity of its own, and an eclectic, modern menu that is sure to turn heads. When asked about the inspiration for Sugar Beets, he said, “I’ve been doing the special dishes on Friday nights for a while now. One of my dreams has been to have a place where I can do the specials every day of the week.”

Ledesma says that the name of the restaurant is a tribute to Oxnard and the sugar beet processing factory that played a central role in the town’s identity from its opening in 1889 until its closure in 1959. While the name has local roots, his menu is a tribute to Asian, Native American, Latino and European cultures. Accordingly, hungry lunch and dinner customers will find tortilla soup alongside an almond-crusted brie cheese salad, spring rolls, fried Navajo bread, and pasta and polenta as well.

On a recent Saturday, we stopped in for a long anticipated dinner at Sugar Beets. We found a cavernous dining room blessed with tall ceilings, and dark leather booths and long dining tables finished with espresso-colored table cloths. A dance floor for salsa dancing, a few red velvet couch lounge areas and a grand bar hint that this is a restaurant that likes to party.

We started with Firestone beers from the tap, and picked two intriguing appetizers from the menu: the salmon spring roll and the grilled watermelon salad. The large spring roll was cut in two for perfect sharing; and the halves perched atop a pile of thinly sliced fennel and shredded carrots finished in a light carrot ginger vinaigrette. The crispy wrapper of the spring roll was filled with large, thick chunks of salmon, a nice change from the more traditional spring roll filled with finely chopped meat and vegetables. The contrast of the tender mild fish, the crunchy shell and the tang of the vinaigrette made for a playful dish.

The salad brought a thick, round disc of watermelon, grilled until just warm, topped with fresh greens in a shallot vinaigrette. Barbecue shrimp, triangles of fried Navajo bread, and a balsamic reduction drizzle finished the plate.

Again, I was struck by the unique combination of flavors — especially the spicy shrimp and soothing watermelon. As for the sensation of warm watermelon, it was a first for my mouth.

From the list of entrees, we selected the mozzarella-stuffed swordfish and the slow-braised lamb shank. The swordfish steak was oozing with thick mozzarella, topped with a tomato, caper and bacon sauce, and served alongside a comforting mound of creamy polenta. Though chefs often shy away from combining cheese and seafood (for fear of the cheese flavor overpowering the fish), Ledesma is one of those chefs who aren’t bound by tradition. The interplay between the soft texture of the fish and the melting cheese was splendid, and the smoky bacon and tangy caper flavors were really able to shine. The golden polenta was as delicious as it looked, the perfect side for this dish.

While the swordfish was fair in color, the lamb shank came bathed in dark-red tomato chili sauce and was laid across a thick, grilled polenta cake. Having braised in its sauce for probably many hours, the lamb was so tender it fell off the bone. The sauce was flavorful, but not too spicy, and the polenta cake was crispy in texture and mild in flavor, the ideal partner to the bold sauce and tender meat.

For dessert, we shared the chocolate duo cake — a round layered dessert filled with a dark chocolate mousse and a white chocolate mousse, finished with drizzles of caramel, raspberry and chocolate. Recently, Sugar Beets won first place in the sweet category at the Oxnard Tamale Festival with its chocolate tamales, so it won’t be long before customers will see them on the Sugar Beets menu paired with dulce de leche ice cream and caramel sauce.

Sugar Beets also offers a tempting array of cocktails, including its signature drink, the Sugar Beet, made with traditional Brazilian sugar beet liquor, muddled oranges and grenadine. A modern orange ginger martini and a festive pomegranate margarita are on the bar menu, as well as a traditional Manhattan and bloody mary. Beers on tap and a hearty wine list round out the adult beverage options.

Though Sugar Beets has only been open since the first of the month, the restaurant is already making a name for itself with its interesting combinations of ingredients, the brilliant melding of different cultures, and the memorable dishes that roll out of the kitchen, paying tribute to great food from all over the world.

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