by JR Grant
11400 N. Ventura Ave.
Mira Monte (Ojai)
In a small town, whenever a popular restaurant changes hands (and cuisines), it takes a while for locals to wrap their heads (and palates) around the new concept. Such is the case with Mandala, a multicountry cuisine establishment on Highway 33 about 4 miles before reaching Ojai’s town center. Formerly Japanese in design and offerings, the restaurant now features Tibetan, Indian and Japanese gastronomy.
While the business is owned by a Korean woman, it is basically managed and run by a Tibetan family (with an Indian in-law and a Japanese chef thrown in for good measure). Suffice it to say, this United Nations of participants is wise to have a prolonged soft opening to fine-tune its combined cuisines. The outside of the restaurant is festooned with dozens of welcoming Tibetan prayer flags, and while much of the former Japanese simplicity of the interior is unchanged, somehow the artifacts and simple Tibetan touches give the rooms a warm comfortability.
To settle into the concept, a great starter is the Tibetan momos; very much like Chinese steamed dumplings (they can also be fried), these mouthwatering bite-sized nibbles are stuffed with cabbage, onions, carrots, garlic and ginger, and served with a homemade chili sauce (not too spicy). Absolutely delicious, and a good teaser before whatever strikes your fancy on the truly varied menu.
Another appetizer well worth sampling is the crispy rice: a chewy square of crunchy rice with a dollop of puréed spicy tuna and delicate thin strips of avocado and spicy mayo. The combination of textures, flavors and presentation is remarkable, and the hint of spiciness from the tuna and the mayo sauce blend in your mouth perfectly. If you also order a seaweed salad (shredded stings of seaweed soaked in mellow rice vinegar and topped with sweet sesame oil and black sesame seeds) you already have a well-rounded and ideal small meal.
There are far too many choices on the menu to sample at simply one visit. The Tibetan chow-mein noodles mixed with garlic and ginger is a terrific side dish, as is the fried basmati rice with cabbage, carrots and peas. (Beef or chicken can be added to any of these dishes.) I sometimes like to mix up flavorings and also order the gobi aloo, an Indian vegetarian side with cauliflower and potatoes, sautéed with tomatoes, ginger, chili and ground coriander, turmeric and cumin seeds. This also goes well with dal, the chef’s selection of Indian lentils and small side dish of white basmati rice.
In the Japanese section of the menu there are many nigiri sushi and sashimi combinations and also a variety of baked and fresh sushi rolls. The volcano roll is particularly interesting: crab meat, avocado topped with baked crab, spicy scallop, spicy mayo, eel sauce and smelt eggs. I am also very fond of the albacore delight roll: spicy tuna, cucumber topped with albacore, jalapeño and ponzu sauce. There is also a large selection of tempura rolls: Each time I’ve sampled either the sushi or the sashimi, the fish seems from-the-sea fresh and melt-in-your mouth delectable.
A good way to sample the menu is lunch; one can order a single item from the menu ($6.50), two ($8.95) or three ($10.95); each lunch order is served with a made-daily miso soup and also steamed rice. Two entrees are fairly traditional (sweet and sour pork and pineapple chicken), and vegetarians will be happy with so many possibilities (mixed vegetables with almond or with garlic sauce, and so many of the previously mentioned Tibetan dishes.
But for me, the winning order at Mandala is the Tibetan thukpa ($8), a homemade noodle soup with cabbage, carrots, broccoli, tomato, onions, ginger, garlic and topped with fresh cilantro. (Chicken or beef can be added for a $2.) This hearty soup transcends its ingredients and it makes one feel one’s chakras are dancing for joy. A friend of mine feels the same way about the chicken sweet corn soup.
As stated, Mandala is currently going through a lengthy “soft” opening; the official grand opening should be in early April. Meanwhile, as they work out their organizational specifics and fine-tune their offerings, it might be a good idea to be an early bird and sample the fare before the lines and wait times overwhelm.