by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

The Vine  
308 E. Ojai Ave.

The Village Jester, the popular pub adjacent to the Ojai Playhouse that never quite reopened after a water-main break in 2014, is sorely missed. Luckily, owner Nigel Chisholm has been satisfying ears and palates with his wine bar and music venue The Vine in the Arcade Shopping Center. Taking over the spot formerly occupied by Barrel 33, The Vine is small and intimate inside with a charming patio in the back, right next to the Matilija poppy fountain. Its well-curated wine list, decent local brews, full bar and intriguing menu make The Vine a lovely place to explore the grape, the grain and some light but creative eats.

If you’re just a bit peckish, there are several appetizer options, which make up for their pedestrian nature with exceptional quality. Cheese and charcuterie plates, chips with guacamole and salsa and an English-inspired spread with ham, pickles, cheddar and hard-boiled egg are among the many tapas platters available. We ordered the Mediterranean tapas, and were impressed by the homemade hummus and dolmas, which provided wonderful texture and flavor. The tangy feta was particularly good, and the roasted garlic and olives rounded out a satisfying snack. We did not indulge in a cheese and fruit plate, but judging by how good the feta was, I’m guessing the gourmet cheeses are impeccably sourced.RedBeerWhite_RGB

For larger appetites, the menu offers a mix of salads, sandwiches, quesadillas and something called a tortizza — a pizza made atop a large flour tortilla. There are some interesting toppings (Thai peanut sauce, spicy adobo, roasted poblanos) thrown into the mix, although you can get a standard margherita, too. We tried the vegetable tortizza, which had Asian pears, blue cheese, bell pepper, tomato and onion, all on top of a pesto base. This ersatz pizza was surprisingly good, particularly if you like thin crust.

Even better were the sandwiches, which all included market-fresh vegetables, gourmet cheese and inventive combinations. The French Connection’s turkey, brie and basil offered richness tempered by herbs and greens, a lovely harmony of flavors. The Ty Cobb’s dry, sharp Stilton and salty prosciutto gave the tender roast chicken a nice boost, and the balsamic reduction added a touch of sweetness. The fresh focaccia was perfect: crusty outside and soft inside, with a hint of herb and salt. Yes, you can get any sandwich as a wrap, but you don’t want to miss out on this wonderful bread.

Salads are as inspired as the rest of the dishes; the hardest part was trying to choose. Options include the Matilija, with dried fruit and nuts; the Greek-like Cobblestone and the Nordhoff with Stilton, nashi pear and candied walnuts. We opted for a Chief’s Peak Salad, which paired fresh greens with chicken, prosciutto, Stilton and a to-die-for blue cheese vinaigrette. It was delicious, but rather large; come with an appetite or plan to share.

Naturally, as a wine bar, The Vine has plenty of pours for pairing, and it hits nearly every wine growing region the world over. The sommelier frequently updates the list, so it’s advisable not to fall in love with any one particular vintage. On the other hand, there’s always something new to try. Our server graciously provided several sips to help with the decision-making process. (A lovely dry French rosé and spicy pinot noir were the winners.) Having said that, don’t dismiss the bar out of hand: The Vine’s mixology is up to par with the best cocktail bars, and my friend’s French 75 — gin, lemon juice and champagne — was beautifully presented and balanced, the perfect sip on a hot day.

Service at The Vine is good, considering how busy the place can get. It’s true, we had to wait a bit for our drinks and food, but our server (working solo on a packed Sunday) checked in with us as much as she could and didn’t forget a thing. If you’re looking for a quick bite, go elsewhere. But if you want to while away an afternoon or evening with friends, nibbling on tapas and sipping some top-notch wine, possibly listening to a local musician playing up front, The Vine is your ticket to a good time. Pass it on.