Azu Restaurant and Ojai Valley Brewery
457 E. Ojai Ave
Catch yourself strolling down “Main Street” Ojai during the siesta hours of the day and the sidewalk may appear to glow with a golden hue, almost suggesting, dare I say it, a yellow brick road. Follow this playful path and it will lead to one of the valley’s hippest hangouts, Azu, a hybrid restaurant inspired by the Mediterranean approach to dining. It has long been a landing pad for locals and celebrities alike to take an extended break from window-shopping or the summer heat and appreciate the riches of the fertile agricultural Shangri-La that is the Ojai Valley. Using a vast cornucopia of local produce, owner and executive chef Laurel Moore and her team are bringing the freshest bounty from farm to table with each creation, starting with the craft cocktail menu.
Lead mixologists John Jefferson and Chris Castorina have recently updated the drink menu to a well-devised list where high quality spirits dance with local flavors. Consider the limoncello martini, a blend of St. Cloud vodka and the house-made limoncello (concocted by Jefferson), a work of art that pays perfect homage to the famed Italian aperitif. And while sweet, this liqueur is void of any artificial, fructose-based additive, and thus allows for a meaningful burst of natural sour to balance the palate. Another high-flying creation is the aviation sour,
an old-timey concept with modern alterations. Castorina, who schemed up this eye-popping beauty while living in an airplane hangar in Santa Paula, mixes local Ventura Spirits Company Wilder gin with honey simple syrup, local pomegranate purée, whipped egg white and a violette liqueur drizzle. The result is a nod to the glamour and glitz of classic Hollywood.
If suds are more your bag, then “hop” damn are you in luck. Azu also plays host to the Ojai Valley Brewing Company tasting room, the boutique beer brainchild of Moore’s son-in-law Jeremy Haffner and his brewing partner Griffin Davis. This dynamic team is taking traditional techniques and infusing them with native plants, herbs and fruit, following suit with Azu’s multifaceted approach to the dining experience. Offerings such as the white Pixie, a nod to a Belgian wit that boasts bursts of citrus, and the earthy Chaparral, a sage-fueled medley mimicking flavors and scents reminiscent of a morning hike along Nordhoff Peak, are just two highlights of the rotating taps.
Once the libations had been handled, my partner-in-dine and I turned our attention to the transatlantic treats known as tapas. The first beauty to tease the taste buds was the bacon-wrapped and chorizo-stuffed dates, a rich trifecta with sweet, salty and spicy overtones. The crisp bacon exterior provides an insulating shell that preserves the date’s warm, buttery texture, which is then delightfully blindsided by the smoky bite of the chorizo. For the herbivores in the room I suggest succumbing to the recent cauliflower craze and experiencing the buffalo fried version. One bite of the crunchy treat will conjure up memories of a favorite pub fare item, minus the mysterious dangling tendons of most chicken wings. Another champion of authenticity is the papas bravas, a common starter in traditional Spanish cuisine made up of golden fried potato wedges and smothered in house-made garlic aioli and spicy, tomato-based bravas sauce.
The main-course treasures are a natural progression from the tapas. Opting for a dichotomy of heavy and light, we married the fresh effervescence of the Syrian Chicken salad with the melt-in-your-mouth mélange that is the braised lamb pita. Starting with the greens, which were locally sourced, this salad is the ideal compliment to any entree. Packed with Mediterranean allies such as olives, cherry tomatoes, manchego cheese and artichoke hearts, these forces bind together and elevate the subtleties of a perfectly grilled kebab. A drizzle of lemon mint dressing atop and a glass of local Alisal wine make this revelation complete. Next
came one of the best braised lamb pitas I’ve had, right up there with those purveyed by Athenian street vendors. The presence of sumac, a nutty crimson spice found in many Mediterranean regions, is what stood out initially, but then that gave way to the pickled red onion and it’s subsequent tang. A well-balance tzatziki sauce and hummus mellowed out any condiment showmanship and put the focus front and center on the heavenly lamb shank, which was the real star of the evening.
Dessert was the last endeavor, and though fat and happy, the tempting allure of Earl Grey crème brûlée and bistro churros could not be avoided. After passing the spoon test (drop a spoon from a few inches into the brûlée; if it doesn’t stick send it back), we combined the two culturally specific treats into one giant U.N. of sweetness, creating a flavor combo that any country could get behind.
Azu is a true facilitator of what the traditional Mediterranean dining experience embodies. The atmosphere welcomes patrons to enjoy the small yet finer aspects of life. So drive out and take some time for yourself. Azu enjoys the company