Many, many springs ago, my date and I and four close friends decided 71 Palm Restaurant would be a good place to have dinner before senior prom. Unfortunately, I was just recovering from food poisoning and was more focused on making it through the evening gracefully than on enjoying the culinary garden of delights before me, so Dan and I split an appetizer (steamed Santa Barbara mussels marinière, which I still dream about), then threw down our cloth napkins as I opted for a dessert of Pepto-Bismol. And ever since, I’ve wondered what might have been …
This time around I replaced my prom entourage with a Switzerland-bound foodie friend who has an emotional connection to French cuisine. We began the evening, naturally, with a glass or two of wine: Kirsten had the Kris Pinot Grigio (Italy) and I sipped the Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais (France), which was understated and smooth and subtly fruity.
71 Palm manages the feel of both a French provincial dream house and an indelible Ventura landmark. Who in Ventura doesn’t know the joys of racing down the hill next to that restaurant and blaming the increased speed on inertia? It was a very comfortable place to catch up over delicious French bread and wine; the dimly lit restaurant felt both homey and like we were having a good night out.
We both hesitated over the chicken ravioli with sage cream sauce, but I ultimately ordered the buckwheat crêpes, certifiably vegan. I managed to spend many years in Ojai without ever going through a vegan stage, so it’s saying something that amidst all the tempting meat choices — grilled beef tenderloin, chicken sausage, rosemary chicken — I was swayed by this dish with its ratatouille stuffing and tempeh. The crêpes were unexpectedly rich and filling, the rare vegan option that doesn’t make me feel deprived.
Kirsten opted for one of the night’s specials: grilled Cornish game hen with béarnaise sauce, pommes frites and stuffed tomato provençale. While the crêpes were a complete meal, Kirsten thankfully had more chicken on her plate than she could manage. There was a delectable hint of rosemary throughout the dish and the tender, flavorful chicken mixed well with the crispy, fried potatoes.
On the one hand, there’s still enough of that prom-bound high school student in me to think that, for that price, the Cornish game hen should have sung us a few show tunes (or read our palms) before plopping itself down on the plate for consumption. But some nights one ought to pay in the neighborhood of $27 to be impressed by her food, and it was, after all, a special occasion — Artwalk, the start of spring and Kirsten’s recent engagement. As the wallet rebounds from this one, I have to admit that Chef Didier Poirier cooks up a mean bird.
We ended the meal with a flourless chocolate ganache cake, served with a drizzling of raspberry sauce and topped with strawberries. As we approached dessert, another friend joined us, a Ukrainian cook whose pleasure in the rich cake made the approval three-strong.
I didn’t indulge in the fine selection of wines enough to soften the blow of the bill (I’m guessing $90 is about average for a fairly inclusive dinner for two, with drinks and dessert), but all told, 71 Palm more than deserves its permanent place in the Zagat guide.