Ojai oasis makes a great escape
By Allison Costa 11/19/2009
3304 Maricopa Highway
$14 - $34
If the walls at Bodee’s Restaurant could talk, boy, would they have some stories to tell. This family-run Ojai establishment first opened for business as a local watering hole in 1947. After a fire in 1951 that destroyed much of the property and, sadly, killed the family patriarch “Bodee” Cromer, it was rebuilt, only to be damaged again by serious flooding in 1969. After much perseverance on the part of the family, and many iterations, it has now evolved into an upscale restaurant whose atmosphere is unequaled anywhere I’ve eaten in Ventura County.
On a recent Sunday night, we meandered up Route 33 in Ojai, watching as the sky got darker and the road more desolate. And then we came upon this well-lit, old stone building — a little oasis on a dark fall night. Stepping out of the car, the first thing that struck me was the smell of a fire — deep, woodsy, smoky and sweet. It was the kind of scent that takes you back to your first camping trip. With the chill in the air, the warm light emanating from the interior of the restaurant, and the scent of the fire, I could hardly wait to get inside.
Depending on your mood or the occasion, there are a number of options when it comes to choosing a table. You can sit inside in the dark and cozy wood-paneled dining room that is actually an old army barracks from 1946. You can meander outside and sit at a more secluded table adjacent to a bubbling stream and under the cover of tall trees. Or, like us, you can choose a table on the patio, next to the roaring fire and under the warmth of well-placed heaters. There is nothing like dining outside — jacketless, I might add — on a chilly November night, the ultimate nod to why we all live in Southern California.
The leather-bound menu at Bodee’s encases a hearty list of steaks, pastas, salads and seafood. Starters include tuna Tatare, crab cakes and a tri-pepper bruschetta. Given the chill in the air, we started with a bowl of creamy tomato soup ($6). It was thick, warm, flecked with basil and ground pepper, and topped with a small mound of crumbled blue cheese. While a simple gesture, I was struck by the impact of this addition. Taking a bit with each spoonful, the tang of the cheese elevated each bite from comforting to brilliant. I sat there wondering, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
The list of entrees is so enticing, choosing an entree proved to be a challenge. There was the chef’s special, blackened rib-eye steak with blue-cheese mashed potatoes; the vodka seared shrimp and scallops; and the prosciutto-wrapped chicken roulade over a gorgonzola-basil risotto. After much debate, we eventually selected the crispy-skin duck breast ($26) and the grilled chicken carbonara ($22). The duck breast was cut into four generous pieces, and rested on a bed of root vegetable hash. The chef also mixed in some sautéed arugula and finished it with a sprinkling of crispy fried leeks. The presentation was stunning, and the dish the ultimate autumn meal. The duck skin was crispy and the meat pink and tender; and when matched with the sweet caramelized cubes of vegetables, the onion flavor and crunch of the leeks, it was the kind of dish that you never want to see come to an end.
The chicken carbonara had a wow factor, but mostly because of its size. What arrived at the table was a giant portion of linguini with big chunks of tender chicken, cubes of pancetta, peas, tomatoes and a garlic cream sauce. There was a nice contrast between the smoky, salty pancetta and the sweetness of the tomatoes and peas; yet the sauce was too subtle, and the garlic flavor hard to find.
The dessert menu is also full of temptation, including fried bread pudding and grilled pound cake served with ice cream. But having started the evening with campfire memories, it was only fitting to end the meal with a cup of coffee and the chocolate campfire cake ($8). And what an ending it was: graham cracker crust topped with molten chocolate cake and capped off with a toasted marshmallow. The crust was thick, buttery and sure to please even those who demand a thick crust.
The cake was warm and fudgy, the perfect balance to the crumb crust. The marshmallow was crisp on the outside and bordering on liquid on the inside.
During our dinner, we sipped glasses of red from the extensive wine list, which includes wines from the Central Coast, Santa Barbara and Ojai ($6-$12 per glass). And, like the restaurant itself, our server was warm and inviting, and gave us plenty of space to enjoy our quiet dinner by the fire. After polishing off dessert, we left Bodee’s feeling full, relaxed, and warm from the fire. Sadly, it was time to leave this oasis and make our way back to reality.