307 E. Ojai Ave.
Suite 105, Ojai
There’s good news, and there’s bad news at the recently opened Ojai Harvest in the old Los Caporales Mexican restaurant spot in downtown Shangri-La. The restaurant and bar is located next to Libbey Park, which is handy. Outdoor seating faces a parking lot. The two spaces are connected by the kitchen on the inside, but have separate entrances, and guests can dine in the bar if they prefer.
Let’s start with the positive: the cozy bar. Great jazz tunes (Chet Baker, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday) were playing over the speakers, and awesome bartender, Hannah, was running the show in that half of the enterprise the evening I popped in and the décor — sort of farm modern — was cool. I will save the bad news in the event the restaurant wants to stay in business and people don’t read to the end of this review.
On my first and only visit, my good friend “Annie Ojai” — the Annie Oakley of food criticism — and I arrived on time for our 5 p.m. Saturday reservation (early, so I could make a pre-concert talk and performance at the 70th annual Ojai Music Festival). We were told that the kitchen “wasn’t’ ready” and that we could not be seated until 5:30, but we were welcome to wait in the bar next door. Good call. The restaurant side has all the ambiance of a school cafeteria. The bar was dark and more inviting. We were generously offered gratis glass of bubbly by the savvy bartender — not sure if this was because we were also celebrating our Gemini twin June birthdays — or due to the flub up on the dinner reservation. We did learn that we could order and eat at the bar, and chose that option.
But first for a real drink. Hey, it’s a bar, right? We looked over the specialty cocktails, but settled on a palate-pleasing glass of smoky mescal, which Anne had never had. Excellent choice. Our best, as it would turn out, in fact.
Then it was to the menu. Anne chose from the carb side of the addictive comfort food menu: a delicious mac and cheese (orchiette with fontina and aged cheddar cheeses, garlic and thyme, $10) that we devoured, followed by super-greasy, but tasty “Harvest fries” ($8). We complained to one another about the grease factor, but turns out, we ate ’em all. She wanted a burger. Bad decision. The bun was boring, as was the Watkins Ranch grass-fed beef. I think there was a smidgen of cheese.
I nibbled on her side salad, which was fine and had the addition of a pretty slice of watermelon radish. Basically, we ate bar food at fine-food prices. Our budget was more than blown with a bill for $75 (granted, the mescal was $14 a shot) — too much in my opinion.
There is a “roots” side to the menu that includes arugula, Tuscan kale, local greens, endives or beet roots, most all sourced from local farms and establishments. Other changing “Specialties” menu choices when we were there included Half A Hen, homemade papparadelle, salmon or halibut.
Service, as noted by locals who have dined here, was slow. The bartender did her best to check in on us — but a few waitresses and waiters streamed past numerous times without stopping by.
When Anne left half of her less-than-satisfying burger on her plate, she was not asked if everything was all right or if she enjoyed it, but if she wanted a “to go” box. There was no birthday dessert with a candle — as Anne had hoped. Should we have expected such a gesture? Perhaps the aperitif played that role? We may never know.
I would return for a drink and the jazz — and maybe the ridiculously fattening fries or even try a salad. Unless this place improves in the kitchen, I’m trusting hard-hearted Hannah to pour me a shot and keep the cool tunes on deck.