Azu is a deceptively large, leisurely enclave along Ojai’s main drag, serving partly as a dimly lighted watering hole, partly as an understated gourmand destination. Azu doles out a carefully selected menu of fine (and reasonably priced) wines, a creative cocktail spread and Mediterranean-style tapas.
But all the dark wood, mood lighting and detail-oriented settings can be intimidating. There’s a markedly hip night culture that congregates at Azu, which can prove off-putting for the random Joe who wants to stumble in for a cold one. I found on a recent Father’s Day, however, that Azu is a catch-all for those who appreciate fine dining and, more importantly, fine drinking. Azu has the remarkable distinction of being both tragically hip and family friendly.
For its reputation as being the inspired result of owner and chef Laurel Moore’s extensive travels through Spain — and despite Azu’s markedly Mediterranean feel — the establishment’s history is also rooted in the Germanic sector. Sit in the back dining room and you’re in the company of the faceplate of an old Duchess oven, harkening back to the many years Azu spent as Bill’s German Bakery (fine purveyor of homemade breads, spice cookies, apricot kalaches and, for a time, the best brewed coffee in the valley).
Now the building has parlayed its exposed brick walls into a chill, minimalist atmosphere. Each table is outfitted with a decanter of ice water (a seemingly obvious, but often overlooked, amenity), and the bread served automatically isn’t the standard sourdough fare, but a deliciously doughy breed.
In addition to a considerable wine list, the drinks on offer run the gamut from mojitos made with mango puree to digestifs to martini concoctions that double as dessert. I chose the red sangria, a brilliantly magenta mix served in a goblet of ice and lime. The highly sippable treat complemented my father’s choice, the Island Girl Martini (deceptively girlified; to be fair, it was a mix of orange and pineapple, refreshing with just a slight kick — why must that be gender specific?). My mother took advantage of the happy hour specials and opted for a well margarita, which I helpfully polished off for her.
If you’ve ever traveled through Europe and fessed up to being American, you know that one of the biggest European cultural gaps is portion size (and in my experience — in Western Europe, at least — portion sizes and the concept of bottomless refill beverages are a favorite topic for small talk among the locals). Here Azu displays a decidedly Old World sensibility in crafting tapas that often serve as entire meals. Although our server recommended six tapas for three people, we found that for our purposes (a quick nosh to balance out the alcohol) one per person was more than sufficient.
My father ordered the flat iron steak, which came served in a small dish with yellow peppers, avocado and sautéed onions. The steak was tender and juicy, and the theme was quality over quantity: indulging in small portions was satisfying. My mother ordered the crab cakes, a delectable recipe served on a bed of slaw.
I had long since finished my drink, and the memory of Azu’s case of gelato inspired me to take the plunge. I capped off my Father’s Day happy hour with a single scoop of the chocolate, which was a flavorfully dense, texturally fluffy dairy confection that tasted subtly like a truffle.