Zoey’s Café
185 E. Santa Clara St.
Ventura
652-1137
$5-$15

It was a quiet, foggy Wednesday night when we visited Zoey’s. We stepped inside the door, and an outgoing bartender hailed us from behind the bar. There was no server that night so it was recommended we forgo the more formal dining room to the right, and eat in the bar or on the patio.

The bartender came around to turn on the patio heater and move a table close to it. As it warmed up, we sat under the red light and took in the murals painted by MB Hanrahan and M Myers.

Musicians were bellied up to the bar, relaxing before they took the stage for the inaugural Songwriters Round night.

We checked out the menu. I’ve been waiting to review Zoey’s in its new location for a while, but it’s taken some time settling into a menu. In its former location, it served sandwiches, pizzas, wine and beer, and when they changed to the larger Santa Clara location, at first, the menu was dramatically different.

Now Zoey’s menu is somewhere in the middle between the old and the new. It has the familiar pizza/salad options of the past and has kept a few twists from its newer attempted incarnation, such as soup, a nightly pasta dish and bacon-dusted wontons. And there is a full bar so they also feature an array of specialty drinks.

We ordered the Guinness cheese soup, shrimp tacos and an apricot, goat-cheese salad and cocktails. I found my Mojito thin on fresh mint and tweaked with sour mix that made it taste more like a hybrid, mint-infused margarita.

Our appetizers arrived, and we started with the Guinness cheese soup. It had a somewhat sludgy texture and a mild cheddar flavor. My companion couldn’t taste any Guinness, and I realized its presence was so delicate that his drink was overriding it. It was a subtle but satisfying soup.

Our three shrimp tacos featured small corn tortillas filled with seasoned shrimp, cabbage, pico de gallo and cilantro aioli. The flavors of this dish were plain, and the aioli dollop in the middle was only incorporated into two out of the six or so bites. The pico de gallo wasn’t up to par, and in spite of the bartender’s glowing recommendation, I didn’t love the tacos.

The apricot salad’s flavors were sweet and inviting. Dried apricots, mixed greens, almond slices and creamy goat cheese blended well with the sweet, slightly spiced honey mustard dressing. But it was over-dressed so the greens were wilted, not crisp. Both the salad and the shrimp tacos had the possibility of coming together but lacked in execution.

The fish and chips and Thai pizza entrees arrived quickly. We asked for malt vinegar to accompany the fish and chips and it arrived in a ramekin, which made it a challenge to apply a small drizzle. I prefer it in small bottles.

I’d been tipped off by a friend recently that Zoey’s fish and chips were the best she’d had since the East Coast, so I was anxious to try them. Five pieces of battered red snapper sat atop a mound of french fries (chips), and a ramekin of chunky, creamy cabbage slaw sat on the side. The fries and the fish were both steaming hot.

I flipped for the fish. The filets were smaller than the steaks of fish many restaurants give you, and the batter was thin, flaky and crunchy. I prefer the crunchy ends of fish and chips, and the thin fish pieces gave me both the crunch and the moist fish in almost every bite. The fries, however, were lackluster.

The medium-thick-crusted Thai pizza featured chicken, roasted peppers, mango, mozzarella and a spicy peanut sauce. The sauce, which we got on the side, was very smoky, thick and potent. The combination of flavors and textures in this pizza was intriguing but not a symphony. The chicken was tender, and the moist peppers fought a bit with the cooked mozzarella. The fresh mango chunks were baked, so their flavor was nominal.

Dessert choices came in both liquid and solid form — fudge cake to strawberry shortcake, vodka ice cream drinks and boozy Mississippi Mud Slides. We erred on the side of being able to drive home and tried the fresh berry shortcake, featuring a house-made shortcake.

Its immense presentation was delightful, two layers high of shortcake, fresh whipped cream between the layers, cut strawberries and a white-chocolate pirouette cookie. The shortcake was like a dense, lightly sweetened biscuit and very cold. The strawberry sauce and whipped cream were delicious, but the berries, though beautiful, weren’t exactly ripe and luscious.

Zoey’s is (and I suspect will always be) more of a music than a dining destination, but the additions to the menu makes me more apt to return to eat there. It was a half hit/half miss, relaxed night.

As we left, everyone had moved into what was the main dining area on the right, graced with red velvet curtains and low-slung banquettes. Four local musicians sat onstage together and took turns singing their original songs. We ended our night on a high note by melting into one of Lee Koch’s deeply moving, soulful blues songs before braving the thickening fog bank outside.

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