Casa Bella
391 E. Main St., Ventura
340-1118
casabellaprime.com
$8-49


Steak lovers in Ventura know that one of the best places in town for a good ribeye (and some gourmet mac and cheese) is Prime Steakhouse. Hoping that midtown magic will rub off elsewhere, Prime’s owners are trying their hands at a Downtown Ventura location. This isn’t merely Prime II, however. The recently opened Casa Bella, on the corner of Main and Oak, features surf-n-turf with a Latin twist, promising “a Taste of Mexico City.”

It’s very much a fine-dining establishment: dark, romantic interior, black tablecloths and napkins, abstract art on the walls, and prices to match the upscale vibe. The Mexican-inspired menu offers mainly steak and seafood, with more chiles, tequila and chorizo than one might find on the more Mediterranean-leaning Prime menu: mussels in tequila cream, cilantro pesto mashed potatoes, lobster bisque with roasted ancho chiles. Preparations tend toward the rich and spicy.

This seems to be the hot new spot in town, and on a weekend night, you’d be wise to make a reservation. Luckily, it’s also a rather large restaurant (the space was formerly occupied by American Apparel) so Casa Bella can accommodate a surprising number of guests, in a variety of smaller dining spaces. We shared our section with a handful of other guests, and while we weren’t isolated, we were somewhat shielded from the hustle and bustle of the bar area.

filet-stuffed jalapeños and fried cauliflower appetizers

The service was excellent (and at that price point, it better be). Our waiter was friendly and solicitous, with an excellent knowledge of the menu and wine list, and he kept the glasses filled and the plates coming. We never felt rushed, but we did feel well tended to.

Everything on the appetizer menu sounded good, so we let our server be our guide. He didn’t steer us wrong: Both the filet-stuffed jalapeños and fried cauliflower were delicious. The jalapeños were just a touch spicy, filled with cheese and bits of filet mignon, wrapped in bacon and drizzled with a creamy sauce — I could have eaten them all night. The cauliflower was lightly battered, and served on a fantastic risotto that found the sweet spot between creamy and al dente. Between these dishes and two expertly prepared, rather large cocktails — a perfect Manhattan and an Old Fashioned — our meal was off to a flavorful start.

A Manhattan and an Old Fashioned (and a soda)

My son ordered the relatively simpler tequila shrimp from the appetizer menu, which was the right amount of food for a smaller appetite. Plump and fresh, basted in a delicate sauce, these were gobbled up in a hurry, along with the corn and rice “bed” it all sat on. Kudos to any restaurant that makes garnishes as good as the main dish.

My turf-loving husband ordered the ancho rib eye, which had a gentle kick from the spicy garlic rub and was served medium-rare. Paired with cilantro pesto mashed potatoes, it was a different (and scrumptious) take on the classic meat and potatoes. I stuck to the surf side of the menu, and went with the night’s special sea bass. The nice, thick fish filet was served on top of a delicate risotto in a pool of parmesan cream, topped with a spicy and fruity mango salsa. It was a good combination of flavors: sweet mango, spicy chile, rich sauce and delicate fish. I enjoyed the poblano creamed spinach, but a lighter vegetable side might have been a better choice — it was all starting to feel rather heavy by that point.

“Rich” does seem to be a consistent element throughout the menu. Almost everything has cheese or cream, and there’s precious little for vegetarians. A few lighter, more veggie-friendly options might not be a bad addition.

Despite that quibble, I found our meal very good and very much in line with a fine-dining experience. Spendy? Yes. But a lovely night out all the same; it felt like a special occasion. I’d go back for happy hour, with those fantastic appetizers and some drink specials, in a heartbeat. If Casa Bella can keep up the good work, Prime just might have another winner on its hands.