401 East Ojai Avenue, Ojai
When I first discovered the name of the new restaurant opening in downtown Ojai, The Nest, I was honestly skeptical. Call it prideful localism, but I immediately thought, “Oh no, here’s another one trying to capitalize on the town’s now nationally recognized name, and they don’t even know what it means!” (While some have claimed Ojai means “nest,” it has been confirmed that the correct translation is “moon” in the native Chumash language.) Wow, was I ever wrong … and the backstory turns out to be a sweet one of family and friends. I was just relieved The Nest had such divine food to quell the aftertaste of all the dirt I had just made myself eat.
As the story goes, in the ’70s, Eric Wachter (of the pier’s Beach House Fish fame) and his then-partner Lynn Wachter opened a small hangout just a few hundred feet from where The Nest currently is, with the exact same name. Eric and Lynn’s version of The Nest was a welcoming scene for friends and visitors alike, but as life shifts so can location, and the establishment bid adieu to the Ojai Valley. That is, until their daughter, Kiona (who grew up and still lives in Ojai), decided to resurrect a family ghost, one that’s friendly and affordable.
Choosing to incorporate the previous tenant’s “window service” layout, The Nest has savvily created a hybrid dining experience, one combining of the current white-hot food truck culture AND a classic outdoor bistro setting. I picked up a menu and mulled over the arrangements, which seemed to reflect “the know” of flavors directing the current culinary compass. Nodding to the tastes of a multitude of cultures, it seemingly has, at the risk of sounding too cliché, something for everyone. This is also applicable to the drinks menu, which boasts four craft beers on tap (I went with Ventura’s own MadeWest IPA), a bevy of local and other California wines as well as a comprehensive specialty cocktail menu with such offerings as the Cable Car, a refreshing libation marrying local Ventura Spirit Company vodka with fresh cherry shrub, lime, thyme and sparkling water. Several other tempting concoctions inhabit the menu as well, most using some form of local sourcing for the ingredients.
Placing my gargantuan food order at the window, I then took a number and began to find my ideal location for this epicurean feast. The place to be seen is unequivocally the Spanish colonial courtyard/bar, but an out-of-the-ordinary gusting windstorm decided to whip through, and the neurotic in me needed to ensure an untainted bounty, an idiosyncratic dining observation only a true obsessive-compulsive could make. So I decided to venture inside where the more rustic scene has a hipster minimalism-meets-cowboy-poet vibe.
The kitchen doors soon swung open and a pleasant server dropped off the first showing of my over-indulgence — the oysters. Though small, two to an order, the aphrodisiac shellfish is offered both raw (with a light champagne vinaigrette) and broiled (topped with an herb citrus crumble). Personally, I think oysters are heavenly any way they come, and I even have an older friend who puts them in a glass of champagne, but the offering of both preparations is perceptively considerate. The other dish presented was the bao buns, an authentic take on an Asian staple. Freshly steamed and soft as a pillow, these beauties are lined with a hearty slab of crispy pork belly (which glistens with a ponzu glaze), pickled veggies, and finished with an ancho chili aioli. The third starter offered was the Korean wings, and for someone who typically avoids fried flappers, these were the tastiest I’ve had in a long time. Deciding on the primal approach, the wings are served bone-in, meaning you have to get down and dirty, which is fine because the accompanying gochujang sauce is literally finger-licking good.
The main courses were revealed shortly after, and the first I had to try was the Tireman. Twelve-hour smoked brisket is slathered with a classic multi-herb Argentinian chimichurri sauce and given a blanket of cheese while being tucked in to its French baguette bed. I don’t order it often, but this was the best brisket I’ve had since my Austin days, and that’s coming from someone who’s stood in line at Franklin Barbecue for hours. The next dish was the tacos with crispy cauliflower, a strong nominee for 2017’s comeback veggie of the year. Soft house-made tortillas provide the canvas for ancho chili cashew cheese, avocado sauce, radish slaw and toasted hemp and pumpkin seeds to bed the hearty cauliflower. They are a truly healthy delight, and — shhhhhhh — they’re also vegan. The final gluttonous endeavor was the lamb meatball pizza, which was richly ambitious. A medium-thick crust is the cradle for the balanced lamb flavor to mingle with crispy capers, dried cherries and pistachio/mint pesto. An infused olive oil is included to drizzle over the top, furthering the uniqueness.
With an ambitious and delicious menu, inspired ownership and an attentive and friendly staff, The Nest will no doubt be a place where many a patron, both local and visitor, will land for some nurturing nourishment.