The Cave
at Ventura Wine Co.
4435 McGrath St. #301
$2.50 – $9

Tuesday through Saturday, the smart early evening gourmands of Ventura County can now be found in an industrial corner of McGrath Street and Telephone Road in central Ventura. They will be seen sampling some of the finest wines available locally, and they will be nibbling on some of the most delicious tapas/appetizers/small-plate samplers now being prepared and offered for our gastronomic pleasure.

Where, you might ask? The Cave at the Ventura Wine Company is my response. Several of my oenophile friends have been touting the state-of-the-art tasting machine at Ventura Wine Company for some time. This amazing creation is called an Enomatic wine serving system, and basically is a round table with 15 red wines visible and attached, and under which you place your sampling glass. You can choose a 1-ounce, 3-ounce or 5-ounce sampling. (You have already prepaid a sampling card that controls the money in your sampling account.) Depending on the bottle price, sample prices range from approximately 80 cents to $4 for the 1-ounce portion. The selections are top drawer and are both domestic and foreign in selection. This is actually going to be a food review, but part of the charm of The Cave is this extraordinary wine sampling machine.

The other day at lunch, I was craving the Maryland crab cakes. Thank goodness it was Saturday, as the small-plate menu is only available at 4 p.m. daily, but all day on Saturday.) The perfectly (and very lightly) fried crab, pepper, celery, mustard, chives, mayonnaise and Worcestershire sauce in a focaccia crumb crust, topped with a red pepper aioli that had just the right amount of spicy freshness absolutely hit the spot. With the small mixed field green salad and a very zesty sun-dried tomato vinaigrette, this was the perfect small lunch.  

The smallish size of the lunch also justified my ordering the daily handmade gelato. I chose the tropical rose and the strawberry kava (made with champagne), and with the addition of the handmade port nut cluster (made with local dark chocolate and almonds).  I felt I had been dining at an exclusive restaurant, as the care in presentation and food combination was exquisite.

My friend was more interested in the Enomatic wine machine and selected a 2004 Landslide Cabernet Sauvignon from the Alexander Valley ($1.82 for 1 ounce) that he felt was extraordinary; he also liked the 2007 Newton Chardonnay from Napa and Sonoma County ($1.47 for 1 ounce). That wine went perfectly with the black tiger shrimp cocktail with “a Bloody Mary sauce”— an extraordinary Tabasco, fresh tomato, celery and horseradish dipping sauce. We also added a small cheese plate (we chose the Danish blue and a Gruyère.) Served with the delicious freshly baked focaccia and grapes, apples and walnuts, at $5 the small cheese plate really is only enough for one person, so duos or more should order the larger plate (at $8).

Another small plate favorite of mine is the agnoli en croute — a very tender, medium-rare circle of lamb loin wrapped in filo dough and served over natural lamb drippings  and accompanied by vegetables (parsnips, turnips, potatoes, red and green pepper) and a very tasty, garlicky mint coulis. Beautifully presented and absolutely perfectly cooked.  My friend opted for the balsamic glazed chicken with a peanut butter potato cake; again, an exceptional and very tasty dish.

As a soup person, I also look forward to whatever Nick Fisher and his talented kitchen staff have prepared for the daily soup. This changes due to local produce availability, and recently I selected the carrot soup with chili — sweet and spicy at the same time, a pure blend of carrot and pepper (topped with a red pepper coulis) that was absolutely outstanding. Previously I chose a black bean soup that was topped with a tomato and onion salsa-like mixture and decorated with julienned tortilla strips. Again, this was another masterly soup.

After reading about North Carolina shore dinners, the last time I was at The Cave I ordered the Calabash N.C. fried fish specialty small plate. House battered and deep-fried oyster (so plump and fresh I could still taste the sea), a juicy and succulent tilapia chunk, a giant tiger prawn, and a mouthwatering hush puppy, all served around a sweetened southern cole slaw — very authentic in its presentation and taste. At $7, this is a great bargain, and certainly one of the best examples of small-plate eating.

I can’t close this review without mentioning one of my favorite desserts: two small ramekins of a custardy chocolate mousse topped under a classic Brulé, topped with a strawberry and served with the port nut cluster. The only missing ingredient can also be found at The Cave:  a glass of Veuve Clicquot Brut Yellow Label champagne (at $15 per glass) — or for those who prefer, a small bottle of San Pellegrino water for $2.50. Ideal, elegant and memorable. I plan on joining those smart early evening gourmands often at the Ventura Wine Company’s The Cave.