Still Ojai's premier dining experience
By JR Grant 02/03/2011
502 W. Ojai Ave.
In the movie When Harry Met Sally, there is a scene where Meg Ryan very verbally expresses ecstatic pleasure in the dining room of a restaurant. In late fall, when I go to Suzanne’s Cuisine in Ojai and order the dessert of baked figs in mascarpone custard, topped with candied almonds, I am always tempted to express a Meg Ryan moment. Yes, the dish is that good.
Eighteen years ago, Suzanne Roll convinced her husband that opening a restaurant in Ojai was a good idea. They had lived in France; she was a foodie (before the term was fashionable) and had learned food preparation, presentation and service from chefs at favorite trois étoiles restaurants. Could Ojai support such a fine dining experience?
Resoundingly, and without question, she has succeeded superbly since the day she opened her doors.
For me, restaurant dining is, first and foremost, about the food. Wholesome fresh ingredients personally selected by the chef are the hallmarks of fine dining; Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley helped revolutionize this concept, combined with the awareness of locally farmed and marketed foodstuffs. Suzanne has followed this practice since opening her restaurant, and can often be seen at local farmers markets selecting the week’s menu specialties.
Although there is a seasonal influence to the menu due to local availability and preference, some of the menu staples are always a treat. One of my favorites is the miso-marinated butterfish with a citrus ponzu dipping sauce. The fish is always just like its name: smooth as butter and beautifully enhanced by the Asian seasoning’s delicate texture.
Suzanne also always has an interesting salmon option: recently I devoured a wild Scottish salmon topped with a fresh mango salsa. It was heavenly, as was my companion’s pan-seared branzino with a roasted tomato-artichoke sauce.
Lest I leave you with the impression that Suzanne’s is only a place to go for seafood, the carnivores in your party will thoroughly enjoy the veal tenderloin medallions with mushroom-Marsala sauce, or the ancho chile chimichurri-marinated grilled prime rib eye. Suzanne always selects extraordinary cuts of beef, and they are a favored selection for me, I must confess, however, that I frequently return to the rosemary roasted rack of lamb with a mustard-herb crust. The juicy tenderness of the lamb, combined with whatever the daily vegetable happens to be (I love the puréed parsnips or the garlic Brussels sprouts) consistently brings a contented smile to my palate.
Part of the Suzanne’s dining experience is the perfect service and design attention to every small detail, from the color and style of the flowers to the press of the linen, even to the fact that every label faces exactly outward on the bottles in the bar. And Suzanne’s is always like this: one is always personally greeted (often by Suzanne herself) at the door, and personal attention is given to every diner, always attentive service without being intrusive in any way.
The fine art of fine dining is always present at Suzanne’s, yet because of the friendly personal attention, the fire in the fireplace, and the warm ambience, it feels like elegantly yet comfortably dining at home.
But it is the food that is central to Suzanne’s draw. Lunch is often packed with “the ladies who lunch” or the traveling business executives, but more often than not, one sees locals who just want a superb meal in a quiet and pleasant location. My vegetarian friend always has the grilled vegetable sandwich (with zucchini, sweet pepper, onion, eggplant with smoked mozzarella and an exquisite homemade olive tapenade). I opt for the grilled knockwurst with homemade sauerkraut, shaved onions, Danish emmental and Dijon on a perfect baguette.
Space does not allow a description of the many fine offerings at this restaurant. The soups are always excellent, and I nearly always begin with an appetizer of duck liver pate with cornichons. The crab and corn cakes, served with a light lemon cream sauce, are also exceptional. Suzanne also makes use of (and sells) eggs from her own chickens, and on her upper Ojai farm (Roll Ranch) she grows grapes from which winemaker Adam Tolmach has created a world-class Syrah. I recently tasted some of her olallieberry jam (divine), and as previously mentioned, what she does with figs is out of this world. All of Suzanne’s desserts are worth trying; the flourless chocolate cake with brandied sour cherries and homemade vanilla ice cream is truly memorable.
It is hard for me to find a flaw in any part of Suzanne’s operation. The attention to detail and the excellent food
selection, preparation, and service really make Suzanne’s an ideal destination for a fine dining experience. All of this is not inexpensive; however, prices are in line with most other fine restaurants in Ventura County. Yet Suzanne’s offers, on top of everything else, that one special ingredient necessary for so many years of continued excellence — Personal care and attention by the owner chef, yes, but everything done with that one special extra ingredient. To quote Gourmet magazine, “Suzanne’s Cuisine is made of love.”