1497 E. Thompson Blvd.
One of the graces of living in our Southern California beach town is that during the dead of winter, we still encounter perfect moments for outdoor dining. While others are sick of snow and ice, Venturans are soaking up rays and discussing phenomenal waves.
Cafe Nouveau is tucked into a Spanish-style home on the corner of Chrisman Avenue and East Thompson Boulevard. Lush tropical landscaping decorates its corner, with a mural on the front porch that welcomes you.
The cashier’s area inside is an antique wooden bar, and Nouveau’s rooms are decorated with warm, eclectic, New Orleans-meets-Art Deco accouterments. There are intimate nooks and hideaways for private dinners, but for brunch, few spots are more ideal than the courtyard patio.
Parking is on the bungalow-lined streets surrounding the restaurant. One can find it by walking toward the bougainvillea and birds of paradise-lined corner, or one can use the nose, as often this particular corner of Ventura scents the neighborhood with the aroma of pancakes fresh off the griddle.
Cafe Nouveau’s daytime menu is six full pages. It runs the gamut from breakfast specials (like a chile relleno omelet, pineapple upside-down pancakes and malted fire-roasted Fuji apple waffles) to lobster bisque, grilled romaine salad or entrees like grilled orange chicken or seafood poblano del mar, a seafood-stuffed pepper. There are a lot of Spanish twists to the “California Fusion” menu and some are just downright creative. Like the décor, it’s eclectic.
A busboy seated us on the patio and took our drink orders. Within five minutes, our waitress appeared and offered to do the same. We sat in the dappled light coming through the tree limbs, sipped our drinks and pondered the extensive menu.
We decided on breakfast (served all day long) over lunch. My companion explained, “The choice between breakfast and lunch is a no-brainer” as “breakfast is most like dessert, and dessert is [my] favorite.”
I ordered the Cajun shrimp eggs benedict ($11.95) and he, the cinnamon raisin French toast ($6.50). After we ordered, a small bird landed on one of the dog bowls set out on the brick patio, for a drink.
The legend of Cafe Nouveau’s building goes back to an Italian couple who grew herbs in their backyard and informally opened their home to feed customers. One day they were shut down by the city for operating without a license. As we sat, shaded by their former olive tree, I kept wondering where they are now.
Our dishes arrived in a timely manner and were pleasantly plated. The hollandaise on mine was electric sunny yellow ,and six red, spice-encrusted shrimp rested on top. My companion had seven slices of French toast and two pieces of bacon.
My first bite of eggs benedict noted the velvety consistency of the hollandaise sauce. One of my English muffins was less crispy than I had hoped, and the sauce, though full and rich, lacked any lemon zing.
I then tried a bite of shrimp and felt the cayenne-crusted fire hit my tonsils. The spices on the shrimp (which included whole caraway seeds) certainly enlivened the dish, but that hint of acid would have fully balanced it. The eggs were beautifully cooked; their yolks slowly ran out to mingle with the other flavors.
My companion enjoyed his French toast immensely. The thin slices of battered bread gave a strong first note of cinnamon and were accompanied by powdered sugar, butter and homemade vanilla caramel sauce. The unique latte-colored sauce was just thick enough to cling to and coat the bites of toast, and the flavors were subtle and lush.
It was indeed as close to dessert as breakfast can get. Unfortunately, his bacon seemed like an afterthought and was a bit undercooked.
My dish came with a choice of sautéed potatoes, hash browns or fruit, and when I was asking about those options, the waitress mentioned white beans she adored, so I tried those. My white beans were creamy smooth and with grated white cheese on top. I enjoyed their simplicity; it was a bit like having grits for breakfast.
Carlos, the handlebar mustached man behind Nouveau, came by to say hello. Once you meet Carlos, he will always remember you; and much like the building with its varied history, he is an institution in Ventura, having been the chef at 66 California (now Café Fiore) years ago.
Our waitress was as sunny as the afternoon, and the entire staff was quite attentive. When she brought our check, it arrived with two miniature chocolate-chip cupcakes topped with sour cream icing swirls, a lovely bonus.
It’s really the little nuances and niceties that make people return to Cafe Nouveau again; it’s a feel-good place. We were so comfortable sitting in the courtyard, we practically closed them down. It’s a good thing they don’t have hammocks.