A magical and serene atmosphere with top-notch dishes

IGT_p-2By JR Grant

Under new ownership, The Ranch House has maintained its magical and serene atmosphere with top-notch dishes, such as the roasted half chicken with a port wine pomegranate reduction, served with asparagus al dente.


 

In the last 15 years I’ve probably eaten at Ojai’s landmark Ranch House restaurant at least 30 times. Since the 1950s, this site has been Ojai’s go-to location for school graduation dinners, high-end family gatherings, weddings, fancy dates and hideaway rendezvous, and any special night out. Redolent of local history luminaries, the photographs in the entrance remind us of Krishnamurti, Beatrice Wood, Aldous Huxley and so many notable customers over the years.
Many diners remember the savory and delicious freshly baked bread, the herb garden and its contribution to fresh culinary creations, and the fresh flowers on the table, often picked from the enchanting garden. Needless to say, when a new owner was announced, a new chef introduced, and a rearrangement of the dining area and gardens promised, many local wags were terrified that the memorable restaurant of their past experiences would no longer be a viable Ojai dining option. About two months ago the new owner, Steve Edelson, invited many Ojai residents and friends to what the invitation called “the big Reveal.”

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Because of so many previous delightful evenings at the Ranch House, I must admit to a certain amount of trepidation as I walked into the familiar location, with its completely redesigned entrance room and bar, and many new paths meandering through the gardens. Gone were the small front room and its dining tables; in its place was an adequate and intimate bar at the end of a large room with cocktail tables, a baby grand piano and a small dance floor, all surrounded by tables lining the garden and several more private dining areas.
The tables are set with white linen, but then covered with tan butcher paper (also with crayons for you to manifest your inner Kandinsky), tan napkins, assorted herb pots with quotations from various artists, and in the candlelight a casual elegance emanates that invites Ojai’s unique metaphysical ambiance. I realize I’ve yet to mention the food, because the restaurant is so known for its location and said atmosphere that no review could be written without the location and environment being given primary focus. The menu is smaller than before, but certainly updated and more reflective of contemporary dining consciousness, with many local foodstuffs being offered and ample use of the well-maintained herb gardens.
The three types of daily baked bread include honey oatmeal, date walnut and a sourdough white. The herbed butter served with the bread has a blend of thyme, parsley and tarragon, and defies you to consume only the served amount; I can almost guarantee you will want more and then more of this savory delight. And the date bread is mouthwateringly good. The crab cakes are an excellent way to begin your meal: lightly breaded rounds of full flavored and juicy crab in an herbed white sauce, and served with a creamy garlic and lemon aioli, these crab cakes show that chef Sean Kingsbury is certainly presenting diners that a talented kitchen artist is at work.

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Recently I ordered the warm honey cured bacon spinach salad with shaved red onions, sautéed wild mushrooms and hard-boiled quail eggs. The description is divine; except for being over-dressed, the execution also received high merit. When I mentioned the soggy excess dressing it was immediately replaced with apologies and a perfect replacement salad. For my main course I wanted to try the chef’s vegetarian entrée: roasted acorn squash stuffed with a wild mushroom herb faro risotto served atop sautéed red cabbage and kale. The risotto was an ideal complement to the earthy squash, and the portion was so hearty I had to take some home to enjoy later.

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My companion had the roasted half chicken, with a port wine pomegranate reduction, served with wild rice and al dente asparagus. Again, a hearty serving, and I particularly enjoyed the combination flavors of the pomegranate and the wild rice. A nearby table had the Frenched pork chop with apple chutney, potatoes and asparagus. Next visit I very much look forward to the cranberry braised lamb shank with creamy polenta and roasted root vegetables.
There is no question that the Ranch House is desirous of once again being a primary destination location for the Ojai Valley. It is definitely not the restaurant of yore, yet so many reminders of its previous incarnation and so much energy and effort are being made to welcome a new generation of diners, the re-imagined Ranch house is certainly worthy of its legendary legacy.