Café Zack
1095 E. Thompson Blvd., Ventura
643-9445 or www.cafezack.com
$31-60


On the corner of Thompson Boulevard and Ann Street sits a longtime local favorite. Café Zack is the epitome of fine dining: quaint, cozy interior; personal service; candlelight by night and a warm, romantic atmosphere. After decades in the business, this lovely cafe hasn’t lost its winning ways, in either ambience or cuisine.

Tuscany salad with ripe pears, a mild gorgonzola and raspberry vinaigrette

From the moment you spy the large trademark “Z” on the sign, you’ll know you’re a far cry from a glitzy, contemporary establishment. Café Zack is in a converted 1930s bungalow, beautifully maintained to keep that old-school charm. The dining areas aren’t very large, but they definitely lend themselves to intimate conversation. Once seated, you do get the sense that you’ve stepped back in time a few decades. Where some restaurants feel festive and merry, Café Zack is relatively quiet and serene. Sit back, relax and settle in for a bit: The modern world can wait a while.

Perusing the menu while noshing on bread, my husband and I experienced our favorite dilemma: too many wonderful dishes from which to choose. From the tried-and-true items off the regular menu to the enticing seasonal options on the list of specials, we had some thinking to do. We enjoyed a fruity glass of (surprisingly affordable) pinot noir to help with the decision making.

Hawaiian mahi-mahi: A large, buttery-soft grilled filet lightly dressed in a delectable sauce made from sundried tomatoes, sage, chipotle and lime.

As tempting as both the sautéed mushrooms and the gravlax sounded, we ultimately went with some of our favorite fall flavors: fresh figs with prosciutto. The figs were perfection — I’m not sure I’ve had them so soft and ripe. And the saltiness from the fine prosciutto married well with the sweet, tender figs. Add a touch of olive oil and the crunch of toasted pine nuts and voilá — autumn in the mouth. We followed that up with a lovely Tuscany salad (kindly split for us) with ripe pears, a mild gorgonzola and raspberry vinaigrette.

Café Zack’s entree menu is not huge, but it offers a lot with the selections. Delicate pastas, roasted meats, scrumptious sauces and fresh fish — there’s something for everyone here, although maybe a few more vegetarian options wouldn’t be a bad addition. The specials are always interesting, too, and designed to celebrate the season and the local produce available.

Few restaurants can coax my steak-loving husband away from a classic ribeye; Café Zack is one of them. The roasted duck breast came close, but the winner would prove to be the pork osso buco. A large, meaty pork shank was roasted with rosemary to within moments of falling off the bone, and then bathed in a rich, red demi-glace. Served over super-creamy mashed potatoes and a hearty pile of roasted vegetables, it was a filling dish — and absolutely spectacular in flavor and texture. Highly recommended.

For something lighter, consider one of the fresh fish preparations. I went with the Hawaiian mahi-mahi, and could not have enjoyed it more. A large, buttery-soft grilled filet came lightly dressed in a delectable sauce made from sundried tomatoes, sage, chipotle and lime. It had just a touch of heat, offset by the tang of the tomatoes and citrus and the richness of the butter. The bed of spinach underneath made a nice, earthy foil. Like the osso buco, it was a very generous serving, and I sadly had room for just a few mouthfuls of the excellent roasted potatoes and vegetables.

I should note that the pacing of our meal was perfect: enough time between courses to digest and anticipate eagerly, without feeling neglected or bored. I was grateful to have no after-dinner plans so that I could embrace the leisurely pace, an unharried evening with my dining companion, the warm candlelight and, of course, the delicious food. A lot of thought goes into the ingredients and preparation, and every time I dine here, I’m given something I’ve always loved, but in a slightly new way.

It’s not a quick bite, or a cheap one, but Café Zack delivers the flavor, service and ambience that have come to define fine dining. Leave the stressors of “business as usual” behind for a bit, and savor it.