Cork
1930 E. Main St., Ventura
667-8866
www.corkventura.com
$11-30


Inside

Cork might be the new kid on the wine-and-beer block, but it should have no problem competing with the more established tapas locales around town. From the stylish décor to the numerous beverage offerings to an inventive menu featuring everything from pickled mushrooms to pork belly macaroni and cheese, there’s a lot to love at this Midtown eatery and wine shop.

My dining partner and I met up on a Friday afternoon shortly before 5 p.m. — and a good thing we did. Within half an hour, the mostly empty restaurant was filling up, with groups gathering around the raised marble tables, couples cozying up on the comfortable couches and everyone else grabbing a seat at the bar. Midtown Ventura has been in need of a good happy-hour spot for some time, and Cork seems to be filling that role with aplomb.

Our server was cordial and attentive, offering samples from the open bottles and taps and making recommendations. I started with a generous pour of a lovely Syrah/viognier blend, and steeled myself for some hard choices. That’s one great challenge Cork will present: selecting just a few items off the delectable menu. The avocado shrimp stack is apparently a best-seller (and quite beautiful), and the banh mi tacos sounded amazing. But the flatbreads looked so good, as did the macaroni and cheese and the mussels. Our server cautioned that all plates were sized for sharing, so encouraged us not to overdo it — making it even harder to choose.

Banh mi street tacos, small corn tortillas stuffed with hunks of succulent pork belly and a sweet and spicy coleslaw, garnished with pickled and raw vegetables.

We settled on a salad, the tacos and a trio of empanadas. It was plenty of food for two, although I wouldn’t call it an overwhelming quantity. The salad featured a ton of fresh greens, lightly dressed in a white balsamic vinaigrette, with a creamy blue cheese and shaved red onions. These sharp flavors were complemented by tart cherries and sweet candied walnuts, making for a very satisfying salad overall.

The empanadas are not made in house, but come from Nonna’s Empanadas, a famed Los Angeles bakery. (It received high praise from LA Weekly in 2013.) Interesting combinations abound, so we decided to try some nontraditional options: one stuffed with macaroni and cheese, a vegetarian version (with spinach, broccoli, carrots and onion) and the Philly cheese steak. My overall impression: not a standout. Perhaps ordering hot and fresh from the L.A. location yields better results, but overall we found them a little bland and the dough a bit rubbery. But, oh, the trio of sauces that accompanied these savory pastries! Generous portions of chimichurri, spicy chipotle cherry and sweet, chunky pineapple salsa, all absolutely scrumptious; they definitely elevated the otherwise ho-hum dish.

My favorite dish by far (and so far; I hope to make a return trip soon) was the banh mi street tacos. Stuffed into small corn tortillas were hunks of succulent pork belly and a sweet and spicy coleslaw, garnished with pickled and raw vegetables. The perfect mix of fresh, crunchy and rich, we gobbled up every bite and almost asked for more.

Nonna’s Empanadas, a famed Los Angeles bakery, featuring one stuffed with macaroni and cheese, a vegetarian version (with spinach, broccoli, carrots and onion) and the Philly cheese steak with generous portions of chimichurri, spicy chipotle cherry and sweet, chunky pineapple salsa.

As for the wine and beer options: plenty to choose from here, too, in both selection and price point. The evening we dined, there were 14 wines by the glass, six of which were less than $10. The bottle list had over three dozen options, and while you could spend a hefty chunk on a few (including a $68 bottle of Nickel & Nickel Chardonnay), several options were under $30. This is particularly impressive, considering that Cork takes pride in offering “mostly small production, sustainably made wines.” For beer enthusiasts, there are seven taps, a few dozen brands by the bottle and some interesting hard ciders. All in all, a great mix of drinks to complement a creative food menu.

After just a few months, Midtown’s latest is gamely hitting its stride, with interesting food, a good selection and a nice atmosphere. Wine tastings, classes and special events are rumored to be on the horizon as well, which will likely add to its reputation. Cork seems to have unbottled a solid recipe for success, and I think the wine and beer bar has the potential to be the next great hot spot in Ventura.