In Good Taste
Paradise in Downtown Ventura
By JR Grant 02/23/2012
667 E. Main St.
For nearly three years, chef Kelly Biglio and manager Tina Lebar have been developing Paradise Pantry into a new-style cafe/dining establishment as an extension of their supremely good cheese and wine store and charcuterie (voted Best Wine Tasting in Ventura County in 2011). Now that menus have been printed and a more or less firm kitchen schedule has been formulated, it is time to review the culinary offerings.
I remember well when chef Biglio opened the West Side Cellar in 2004, where she served the most extraordinary meals in Ventura County for nearly two years. I ate there nearly every Friday evening and was constantly amazed at the quality of preparation and innovation of flavor she was bringing to our collective palates. When she left the Cellar, a major culinary void existed in the county. Thus, when Paradise Panty opened, I was thrilled and now frequently taste of the varied and interesting menu.
To begin, I must preface that I am a serious cheese junkie. Lebar has brought in probably the best and most complete cheese offerings for miles around. The other afternoon I stopped in just for a small cheese plate, and it was superb as an amuse bouche, because I then took some charcuterie home, along with gourmet delicacies (sweets and savories) of every sort. On the cheese plate, I selected the StraCarpa (a spectacular goat cheese taleggio from Lombardy) and the Buenalba (a raw, medium-hard sheep’s cheese with tarragon from La Mancha, Spain). This particular cheese is a good, lighter alternative to the better known Manchego.
If wine tasting were a part of your visit to Paradise Pantry, the very knowledgeable Lebar would certainly pair your cheese selections with an extraordinary wine. For me, the Hildon sparkling water from Hampshire in S.E. England is the perfect beverage. The above-mentioned cheese plate was beautifully served with paper-thin sliced apples, strawberries and a mixture of nuts, golden currants and apricots, and also several of the giant cured olives. Chef Biglio marinates them in garlic and lots of lemon juice.
At lunch one cloudy day, I noticed on the board that the special that day was a spicy fish soup. (The note next to it said fresh salmon and snapper were the ingredients.) When the soup arrived, I was a little disappointed it was not particularly hot, but one quick mention to Lebar and it returned steaming hot from the kitchen. This attentiveness to service at the Paradise Pantry is very much appreciated. (Would that one could find it everywhere.) The soup was quite tasty, although it seemed heavier on the snapper rather than the salmon and, for my palate, it could have been a bit spicier. It was loaded with a multicolored combo of red, yellow, orange and green peppers and chunks of tomato, and presented with a dollop of crème fraîche and lemon slices.
For dinner one evening, I opted for the special panini: pork, pancetta and porcini braised in wine and herbs with sheep- and cow’s-milk cheese in a toasted baguette and served with a side salad of mixed greens from Scarborough farms and tossed in a rice vinegar and lemon juice fig balsamic vinaigrette. The bread of the panini is delicious. (I discovered it is the recipe from the old Anacapa Bakery and made now at Agostino’s Bakery in Oxnard.) The panini was great and, as there is a different combination every day, I’m sure each choice will reflect the same attention to flavor and ingredients.
One dining choice I’ve yet to sample is the daily macaroni and cheese special. (The other day, it was a double cream gouda/parmesan mixture; another day it was a noodle pasta with aged cheddar, smoked ham and rosemary). The pâté sampler (with truffles, smoked salmon spread or mushroom pâté) is also a good light lunch. So many selections, so much to look forward to sampling. Paradise Pantry is top quality in every way; it may not seem like a full-service restaurant, but it certainly satisfies this foodie’s cravings on every visit.