Mary’s Secret Garden
100 S. Fir St.   
$6 – $18

I have a confession to make. I stopped at the bar for buffalo wings and a pint before going to Mary’s Secret Garden, the organic vegan restaurant in downtown Ventura. I know, go ahead and laugh. I thought we might need some reinforcements in case the food was too light, or in case we couldn’t get a beer.

I was wrong. It turns out, I didn’t need those wings. Or that beer. Mary’s Secret Garden wowed me on so many different levels — from their drink options all the way to the delectable desserts.

When we arrived at Mary’s I was immediately struck by how intimate the dining room is. Eating there is as soothing as sitting in a good friend’s living room with a cup of tea. Our server was lovely and gracious, and the service was prompt. For someone who wasn’t sure what to expect at a vegan restaurant, our meal was full of wonderful surprises.

The drink menu offers a small selection of organic beers and wines and an array of non-alcoholic drinks like raw organic smoothies, homemade ginger ale and kombucha tea. My husband started with the organic porter, and I chose the smoothie of the day: a creamy concoction made with black cherries, coconut, pineapple and homemade raw vanilla coconut milk. The beer was dark and smooth — made that much better by the chilled pint glass.

The smoothie was sweet, but not overly sweet, with hints of pineapple and coconut dancing in the background while the flavor of the fresh cherries stole the show. While many smoothies tend to taste like rich, sugary milkshakes, this one was all about the fruit.

One of the dishes that surprised us was the special appetizer, a raw ravioli dish. Thin sheets of jicama were wrapped around an herbed almond cheese filling, and then topped with a marinara made of pistachios, tomatoes and roasted peppers. In addition to the marinara, each ravioli was finished with a drizzle of pesto sauce. They were served with a simple baby spinach salad topped with fuchsia-colored amaranth sprouts.

The whole dish was almost too pretty to eat, and tasted even better than it looked. The crunch of the jicama was probably my favorite part, followed by the flavors of the filling and the marinara: decadent, nutty and rich. The presentation was divine, the taste stunning.

The list of entrees at Mary’s includes burritos and sandwiches, wraps and stews. There are a falafel wrap finished with a tahini mint sauce and a tostada made with pumpkin seeds topped with chipotle cashew cheese (vegan cheese). Though it was a tough decision, we settled on an order of the Thai yellow curry and the Secret Burger, served Mary style.

When they arrived, we were speechless. Steam was rising from the curry, infused with the aroma of basil and cilantro — the perfect foreshadowing of the flavors to come. The burger was towering, and whimsically cut into two uneven halves, and served with a colorful scoop of quinoa salad.

The curry was filled with stewed Japanese kabocha squash, carrots, potatoes, red onions, ginger, garlic and basil and served over fluffy brown rice. We ordered ours with the chycken, a chicken-like protein. Each bite of the dish offered something new and exciting — some bites were filled with soft potato, others with the sweet squash, still others with hints of the onion and cilantro. And everything was happily bathing in the rich coconut curry sauce with just a hint of spice.

The burger is built with a grilled soy patty and topped with melted cheddar cheeze and all your favorite burger fixin’s like lettuce, tomato, pickles and onions. Since we ordered ours “Mary style,” it came with the addition of fakin bakin (heir version of vegan bacon), sliced avocado and a special sauce, which was similar to Thousand Island dressing.  The bun was hearty, and the flavors from the smoky bakin’ and the tangy sauce were spot on.

Not surprisingly, the folks at Mary’s don’t mess around when it comes to desserts, either. In fact, the desserts (like the jumbo cupcake du jour and lemon cheesecake) were so popular that night that most had sold out before we got our order in. We opted for the cookies ’n’ cream ice cream sundae. The raw chocolate ice cream was dark and rich, and topped with crumbled chocolate wafer cookies. Served in a martini glass, with two spoons, it was the ideal ending to such a wonderful meal.

The attention to detail and the creative use of ingredients at Mary’s Secret Garden leave nothing to be desired, even for those who like a good order of buffalo wings here and there. Never once did I miss my dairy, or my meat. If anything, today, it is Mary’s that I am missing. Thank goodness for the leftovers in the fridge.

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