1067 E. Thompson Blvd.
Barrel 33 in Ventura has survived. Perhaps all of us should be saying that about ourselves after the trauma of Thomas. But it’s not just that the physical building survived, though that is good enough — it is that the air of simple, good and honest ingredients did, too. And under its new owner, Parfait Eklu, who hails from France and took over the bistro from Norbert Furnee in 2016, the small wine bistro on Thompson Boulevard is a true oasis.
In its original iteration, first in Ojai (now closed) and then on Thompson Boulevard, Furnee’s menu was geared toward the small-plates trend that has grown in recent years; and Barrel 33 became a destination restaurant for a glass of wine and a taste of light, fresh Mediterranean items. Now, though, the menu isn’t so much about the small plates, though the starters menu does indeed have them and they’re elegant and delicious, as it is about pushing the envelope of comfort food.
Entrees are broken into two groups: pastas with a variety of sauces and toppings and thin-crust pizzas and a wonderfully adapted wine menu featuring a number of French selections not often found locally. But the starters menu is a real point of gastronomic elegance with a charcuterie plate that is unrivaled, and cheese plates, tapenade and even a duck paté plate, of which my dining companions and I all partook. They are a perfect entry into the meal with fresh meats, and bread and cornichons with hot mustard accompanying each plate.
This limited menu is a masterstroke in my view. Eklu has kept his focus on good food with quality ingredients and has not strayed into newer, perhaps trendier areas. The result is delicious, handcrafted plates served with care and even a touch of élan and flourish, usually by Eklu himself.
After the charcuterie and duck paté plates, My wife, Susan, ordered the Santa Barbara Smoke House Salmon Pasta with tarragon cream sauce and I had the Spicy Italian with ‘nduja sausage and diced tri-tip and the house salad, while our dining companions, Paul and Tracy, split the Chicken in White and Blue with pasta and a caprese salad.
The salads are meals themselves and the caprese is a masterwork with fresh sliced tomatoes and a big ball of burrata cheese served in the middle with Ojai basil-infused olive oil. Caprese is a mainstay of California cuisine, but small changes such as these make it still fun to eat. The fresh, light and crisp vegetables in the house salad combined with green apples, grapes and dried cranberries are delicious and have become a favorite for me. The salad is topped with walnuts, however, an ingredient that can send my wife to the Benadryl jar, so I can’t share with her.
The Chicken in White and Blue is penne pasta with cream sauce, gorgonzola cheese and garlic, again bringing to life a comfort food ideal. All of the pasta dishes are served al dente and each dish is fresh, not over- or undercooked, with its accompanying sauce or toppings made to order as well.
We shared a bottle of Hob Nob Red Blend, a French wine popular in the States and a perfect match with our collection of dishes. A wine bistro, after all, looks to pair the wine and the food, and Eklu does that at every table, suggesting wines to drink and offering on the menu a number of entrees paired with particular bottles at special prices. It should be noted that no one under 21 is allowed into Barrel 33 as it is a wine bistro.
The dessert menu is worth going for even if you don’t eat dinner there. The Tarte Tatin Maison, a warm French apple tart served with vanilla ice cream is equal parts dreamy and light while I prefer the Tasty Bites dessert, which is several Belgian chocolates served with English Farmhouse cheddar and fruit and nuts. A Vesuvius chocolate souffle is the king of the desserts, and paired with one of the fine ports on the menu it can’t miss.
Ventura’s wide and even eclectic variety of restaurants is a point of pride for the downtown area. Barrel 33’s cozy, European atmosphere inside and outdoor patio for larger parties provides a kind of antidote to the rush and thrum of busy and large places. Good and simple food, served with passion and flare — in these times, it’s the kind of escape you need.