2261 Maricopa Highway
For regular customers, new ownership of an iconic establishment can engender either dread or relief, depending on the establishment’s most recent incarnation. For the Deer Lodge in Ojai, it has mainly been the latter, thanks to the energetic spirit and long-term vision of new owners Tom Doody and his wife, Pamela Robins. Since the beginning of the year, changes have become very apparent: the front and side patios have crisp new landscaping and lighting, the trees have been trimmed, the funkiness of the restaurant/stage area has been cleaned and tidied, and now, finally, the restaurant is fully operational with the clever and delicious cuisine of chef Canon Ciccati, who is doing his best to use local and organic produce and top-grade ingredients for most courses (including beef from Upper Ojai-raised Watkins range-fed cattle.)
For 72 years, the Deer Lodge has provided repast for travelers along Route 33 out of Ojai toward Matilija Canyon. And now, finally, the chef is using quality local ingredients for what is sure to become a favorite destination dining experience. Antlers still decorate in the rustic and Western-style motif, and random artistic touches throughout show the keen eye of the owners in making sure each view inside the restaurant has been planned for maximum visual pleasure. The bar is also still the prominent entrance feature, and local flavor is evident here in the very popular cocktail Lori’s Lusty Lemonade, made with lavender lemonade, vodka, triple sec, fresh lime and soda water.
One of the most appealing (and appetizing) starters is the vegan stuffed mushrooms: baby portabella mushrooms, with quinoa (or barley, or whatever chef thinks is appropriate for the day), always vegan, gluten-free, and loaded with veggies and herbs. Served over chopped kale, this dish may not sound mouthwatering to some, but every single bite is memorable. This is an outstanding creation of Chef Canon. Also memorable is the grilled artichoke stuffed with a black bean corn salsa and served with fresh horseradish and a basil aioli on the side.
There are many salads to choose from, most made with all local ingredients. My favorite is the Super Fresh: finely chopped kale, avocado, corn, tomato, scallion, bell pepper, garlic, and tossed with olive oil and lemon juice. I also tasted my dining companion’s Roadhouse Caesar, which is basic Caesar with the addition of green chilies, chives, diced tomato, sweet corn and homemade croutons. Very creative and tasty.
I’ve yet to make it for lunch for one of the sandwiches. (The basil chicken club sounds terrific with grilled chicken, special honey-cured bacon and the garlic aioli.) Also, instead of the Watkins cattle beef burgers, one could substitute venison or buffalo. Vegetarians might enjoy the Motown: crunchy fried jalapeños and onions, with avocado, cheddar and chipotle mayo.
On my last visit I chose the grilled lentil walnut loaf, made with brown lentils, toasted walnuts, oats, flax seeds, fresh herbs and veggies, served with garlic mashed potatoes. This was a phenomenally hearty loaf that came alive with the accompanying sauce in which I could taste pineapple, oranges, tomato paste, cloves, molasses, garlic and mixed chili peppers. The lentil loaf and sauce were extraordinary. Unfortunately, the side veggies (cauliflower, sliced yellow squash, and carrots) were too al dente (a good sign of their freshness, but still a little too crunchy for my palate).
My companion ordered the fried chicken (which a Southern friend of mine swears by). The poultry is free-range, organic and very flavorful. It is rolled in a panko (or cornflake) crust and is very crunchy on the outside and juicy and tender on the inside. All the entrees at the Deer Lodge sound appealing, and I look forward to many repeat visits to sample them.
As the menu is new, and as the staff is sorting itself out, I might suggest the importance of really attentive service. None of us wants someone to hover, but it really is a good idea to stop by the table if the order is taking a little long, or if the coffee cups need refilling. Tiny details like that may seem insignificant, but do leave a lasting impression on the diner. The creative cuisine, energetic ambience and re-created historical setting, however, make Ojai’s Deer Lodge a must visit for travelers and local foodies alike.