Barrel 33  
308 E. Ojai Ave., Ojai
1067 E. Thompson Blvd., Ventura
$6 – $14.50

Three years ago, celebrated restaurateur Norbert Furnée (Deco in Ventura, Sage and Onion in Santa Barbara) heard that an ideal location (a wine bar) was becoming available in the center of the Arcade in downtown Ojai. Never one to miss an opportunity, Furnée acquired the lease, and Barrel 33 was born. Catering to the higher-end bar crowd and also to the trend toward smaller-plate bar nibbling, Barrel 33 fast became an Ojai destination for sophisticated locals and travelers seeking a quieter and more relaxed libation location. The Ojai location offers full-bar cocktail options as well as many wine selections.

A year later, another location became available (this time in Midtown Ventura on Thompson Boulevard), and Furnée duplicated and expanded on his Ojai success. As a wine bar, the cellar is moderately impressive with more than 15 wines available by the glass and a varied enough selection that should please most oenophiles. The wine list seems strongest in pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon, and the better Santa Rita Hills wineries are well represented, as well as some standouts from Washington State (like the Walter Klore Columbia Crest Private Reserve).

For my palate and this food review, however, it is the available delicious light food fare offerings on which I focus. The duck paté from France is a great standout: creamy and fine-textured (and prepared from humanely raised ducks), this treat is served with tiny cornichons, Dijon mustard and fresh-tasting crostini. On a recent visit I also chose the French artisan brie plate, which had an outstanding, and very creamy, triple-cream brie drizzled with Grand Marnier strawberry sauce, accompanied with pear and walnuts. If one needs a quick Provence fix, this order might just be the solution.

With the proliferation of small pizza options in Ventura County, a vegetarian friend of mine swears by Barrel 33’s “The Ventura,” a very thin-crust pizza layered with goat cheese, fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and pesto, topped with kalamata olives. While I agree it is a tasty treat, I prefer the “Barrel 33” with freshly sliced, full-flavored pepperoni, marinara sauce and fresh mozzarella.

Continuing with the Mediterranean food theme, there is a classic simple hummus with crostini, as well as an olive medley mix (the giant Sicilian green olives are particularly flavorful), or possibly an even better choice might be the Mediterranean plate (at $14.50) with olives, hummus, lemon-herbed feta spread, roasted peppers, garlic, dolmas, baba ghanoush and toasted baguette. I also like the herbed goat cheese-stuffed mushrooms, served with warm greens and toasted pine nuts.

If a salad is more to one’s liking, two salads stand out. One is just simple mixed organic greens with chopped apples, blue cheese crumbles, grapes, red onion, walnuts and a balsamic vinaigrette, but I’m partial to the Cellar Caesar: romaine lettuce hearts, freshly shredded parmesan and a delicious creamy chardonnay reduction Caesar dressing with herbed crouton.

Both locations of Barrel 33 have a relaxed feel and welcoming atmosphere. Ojai has a slightly more formal and refined look; but on the nights when rocking jazz or blues musicians take the floor, it can have a raucous and energetic feel. The Ventura space has a wood fire in the wine garden, and whether in the patio or the cozy dining/bar area, it feels homey and comfortable. By special arrangement the Midtown Ventura space is also available for private events and special occasions, and that location is convenient for all visitors.

Recently, I stopped by the Ventura location to meet someone (who had not been there) for a quick drink, and my friend was hungry for something sweet. While one offering (particularly good accompanied by a red wine) called “Tasty Bites” is simply dark Belgian chocolate, candied walnuts and a slice of Grafton cheddar cheese, I suggested a splurging delight: warm chocolate soufflé with strawberries and fresh whipped cream. Of course, it doesn’t arrive instantaneously, but the ambiance, friendly staff (Furnée is often behind the bar in Ventura) and welcoming feel of the establishment makes the arrival of the soufflé a great finish to an already enjoyable food and beverage experience.

Barrel 33 proclaims it serves fresh light fare. It also serves terrific atmosphere and good libations. Norbert Furmée seems to have an enchanted gift for creating just the kind of relaxed experience Ventura county diners and drinkers often seek.

Barrel 33, Ojai: 308 E. Ojai Ave., Ojai, Ca 93023 (805) 646-1555, M-Th 5 p.m. – close, F/Sa 3 p.m. – close. Sun 1 p.m. –close; Ventura: 1067 E. Thompson Blvd., Ventura, CA 93001, 805-652-1810, Tu-Sun 5 p.m.- close, Monday closed.