The Cave at the Ventura Wine Company
4435 McGrath St., suite 301

When The Cave opened in Ventura five years ago, it felt as though it was the talk of the town. Every wine drinker you knew was talking about the high-tech wine dispensers and the pairing-friendly menu. But with more recent years bringing a profusion of wine bars and pairing events, it’s easy to get caught up in trying new places and forget what a unique experience The Cave offers.

Few other local restaurants offer the range of approaches The Cave invites you to take. If you want to make a fun date of pairing many wines with many foods, there’s a variety of “shared bites” to pair with one-, three- or five-ounce pours from the airtight Enomatic wine dispensers.

If you’d rather stay seated and unwind, you’re free to bring over a bottle from the adjoining Ventura Wine Company and share some small plates (which are not urban-tasting-menu small) and a salad. Or if you’re on your lunch break and don’t have time for pensive sipping and munching, there’s a variety of more filling sandwiches, burgers and pizzas.

In any case, the main dining area — which is windowless, dimly lit and lined with rough plasterwork to feel like a real cave — is perfect for accommodating any of those needs. You know how, when you emerge from a matinee at a movie theatre, the light and bustle of the outside world feel surreal? There’s a similar effect to sitting in this dark venue and zoning out on acoustic David Bowie covers — perfect way to detach and slow down time during your lunch hour.
One thing to be aware of is that on the first Tuesday of every month, the small plates section of the menu gets a makeover (other sections to a lesser extent). This makes for some excitement, as it was a different menu when I had been there only five days before. Of course that does mean a favorite of yours might go by the wayside, but it makes for a kitchen that stays on its toes and a selection that never gets old.

One very wine-friendly item that’s new among the “shared bites” is the arancini, little balls of breaded and deep-fried risotto that are stuffed with rich beef bolognaise and mozzarella, with three of them sitting in a pool of spicy pomodoro sauce. Crack them with your fork, run a bite through the thick, scarlet tomato sauce and fight the urge to just order more of these as your meal. The staff-recommended pinot noir from Sean Minor popped with deeper and darker red cherry and spices alongside this one.

A highlight new to this month’s small-plate selection, which — take note — is only available after 4 p.m., is the crab-crusted salmon over garlic scallion potatoes. Just as with the fish on the salmon salad, the kitchen here excels at preparing salmon with crispy edges the color of light-brown sugar. The briny sweetness of pulled crab meat comes up on the back end, right while you’re in the middle of enjoying the mild richness of the garlic potatoes and saffron buerre blanc sauce.

The grilled vegetable napoleon is a great contrast against rich dishes like the salmon. Tomato and zucchini slices are stacked over a grilled portabella mushroom, which is filled with a thick eggplant-cashew mousse that gives savory substance to this light item. A couple of ribbons of chiffonade basil mixed in with a bite made this an ideal summer dish.

While it’s fun having a menu that constantly brings in new items, this brings in an element of risk since you inevitably try something that hasn’t yet been perfected. Like a recent special pizza, which included braised pork belly and figs with onions, red bell peppers, manchego and a fried egg. This riff on classic sweet-with-pork pairing was almost good, but lacked any acidity or peppery zing to give complexity.

But it’s easy enough to shrug off any experiment that lacked a memorable result when you consider that nothing on the menu, nor any special, ever costs more than $10 here. For the experience and quality of food, you can laugh, thinking of what a similar endeavor in L.A. would cost.

As far as service goes, I was warned by a few that the food can come out at a glacial pace here, and that going on a lunch hour is a time crunch. Maybe due to recent changes in the kitchen staff, can’t say for sure, but no recent visit has lived up to that bad rep. Food came out quickly and the young wait staff was polished and attentive.

If any change would be nice at The Cave, it would be having some more guidance with matching up the variety of wines and foods. The try-and-learn approach here is fine, but a little guidance on paper or from servers would certainly be welcome, too. So would keeping an updated online menu.

With the variety, the flavors and the unreal bargain you get here, seeing The Cave as dynamic as ever on its fifth anniversary feels like a great thing for Ventura.