Simply creative and seasonal in Ojai
By Nicholas Franklin 04/18/2013
254 East Ojai Avenue
A change in the seasons makes for an exciting time at some restaurants as chefs seize the opportunity to play off the shifting weather and make use of newly available ingredients. Among those restaurants is Feast Bistro, a narrow open kitchen restaurant in downtown Ojai’s historic arcade where Chef Susan Coulter and her team have crafted creative “new-American” cuisine since 2005.
Seasonal menus have been a motif at Feast since its inception. This makes for especially tempting Facebook posts, when a cold afternoon might mean an offer to be warmed up by split pea soup, pork pozole, and a bottle of tempranillo. So when I saw they were closing for an afternoon to prep for the spring menu, I couldn’t wait to see what the Feast crew would be tempting us with as the teperature rises.
The menu here is very trim. The entrée choices consist of one dish each for steak, pork, duck, chicken, and catch-of-the-day seafood, plus a couple of pasta plates and a vegetarian dish. Keeping it simple allows them to have constantly rotating specials as well, so you’re always left on your toes when it comes to deciding what to order.
Among starters, the Feast flatbreads are a welcome vestige of the winter menu. They’re straight-forward, with bacon, caramelized onion, and smoked mozzarella atop thin fresh bread. You can’t really go wrong with them any time of year.
The tuna and white bean salad is an Italian-inspired addition tailored for spring, featuring pickled red onions and a subtle vinaigrette for overall brightness. But the tuna brings a nice savory undertone for balance; it’s chunky with a moist pull-apart texture and pleasant saltiness.
If you’re feeling soup, this a great place to come. Each one I’ve tried here had great texture and depth of flavor that you only can accomplish with patience. The lentil soup from the most recent visit was earthy, herbal and rich — could’ve had a bowl of it with bread for a light dinner.
The standout entrée right now is the Ojai orange duck. Nearly every table in the front room has a stark view of the open kitchen and, if you see the chefs plating this under the bright lamps, you’ll find it hard to resist.
Served over midnight-black “forbidden rice” and topped with the brilliantly colored orange confit, this one is as delicious as it is visually striking. The rice carries a nutty yumminess augmented with carrots; the Chinese five spice rub lends warmth and complexity; and the orange confit brings a refreshing and balanced sweet tang.
Pork a la Greque is also very satisfying. Herbed tenderloin medallions and red potato mash are both topped with tzatziki sauce, which has thick creaminess and tang from Greek yogurt bolstered with lemon and dill. With the crusty edges on the medallions, you’re almost reminded of a gyro.
Going back to the seasonal motif, the vegetables of the evening are always available locally. On the last visit this included red chard, bok choy and carrots. Cooked to a slight crunch and lightly seasoned, these were easy to polish off early in the entrée.
The food really has never disappointed. It doesn’t aim to be complicated or fussy, and the results are memorable. The interior of the place shows a similarly casual refinement. It’s cozy, has a wall bench lined with pillows, and accents evoking France and Spain. It feels like it could be a friend’s house. The tiny open kitchen and snug European-style two-top seating enhance this feeling of intimacy.
This physical intimacy, however, becomes a liability when the staff lets their professional veneer slip. When you’re trying to cap a good meal with an impressive homemade apple tart, hearing distracting and off-putting, candid kitchen-talk from the open kitchen takes away from an otherwise positive experience.
Also bothersome is the fact that it is consistently out of most of the wine listed (reds, anyway). On one occasion, this might’ve had to do with “Wine Wednesday” (half-off all bottles), but it has become a trend to have to re-decide among two or three choices while the server hovers next to you, pen ready.
In the end, you don’t feel too chafed by these faults when you’ve eaten thoughtfully prepared and delicious food at a relative bargain, but they bring to mind the fact that some things that separate great restaurants from good ones don’t cost extra for the owners. That said, with a dynamic menu featuring creative, fresh and comforting flavors, Feast Bistro still stands as a restaurant that deserves and rewards your attention.