Gargantua at Beacon Coffee Company
211 W. Ojai Ave
Those of us self-proclaimed coffee connoisseurs seek out only the finest purveyors to satiate our caffeine cravings. So when Beacon Coffee nestled in to the thankfully abandoned exoskeleton of the old Carrows on Main Street in Ojai, our prayers for a high-end eco-conscious establishment had been given salvation. It provided a Mecca of cool, where all walks of life could coexist in a modern model of Bohemia without the side order of pretentiousness. Then, out of seemingly nowhere, owners John and Jennifer Wheir decided to up the ante in a most delicious way. Long known as a forward-thinking culinary community, Ojai has seen its share of contemporary foodie digs, and most grade out well above average. That being stated, the new first-rate fare of Beacon’s co-inhabitant restaurant, Gargantua, is the most dynamic and creative I’ve yet to encounter. Now, granted this title is much akin to awarding an Olympic medal where all contestants are at the pinnacle of their respective fields. Still, one must stand atop the podium, and Nick Barainca and staff”s kitchen hangs the gold medal upon its wall.
When I decided to embark on this review it was with a lead-heavy heart as I had just learned of the passing of one of my heroes, the great and inimitable Anthony Bourdain. His illumination of the eccentric idiosyncrasies within the contemporary cuisine community drew in people like salivating moths to the flame of an open grill, and brought culinary artist to the foreground of the pop culture zeitgeist. And considering his influence on my food writing and overall expectations of modern fine dining, I was hoping for an exposition that would be worthy of his standards; and as I sat there with the air of his ghost, I was sad, yet not disappointed.
The first round consisted of a nutty old-world grain salad featuring emmer, sprouted lentils, puffed rye, fresh shucked sweet peas, red mustard leaf, fennel top and zestful bursts of unripened blueberry. The medley all rested upon a bed of fermented sunflower yogurt and tahini, which accented so marvelously that it could’ve had a dash or tilde marked above it. This collaboration was so palatable that it could easily be enjoyed for breakfast, providing a stark contrast to the fatty, homogenized American way to start the day.
The next showcase was the roasted pork rillette, a classic French preparation. Laid open-face style upon house-made wheat charcoal bread, for which the grains were personally milled in Los Osos, the buttery pork was the foundation for spicy coleslaw, a whole mustard seed compound and pickled cucumber slices. The attention to detail of these items formed a strong supporting cast, allowing the true rich flavor of the rillette to take center stage.
The chicken larb — a traditional Lao salad consisting of ground meat — was the third leg of the journey. Infused with achiote, cumin and fermented banana, and cooked in its own fat, the larb was complex and yet stayed true to its roots. Accompanying hibiscus pickled onions and toasted pepitas rounded out the piece, rendering it ready to be blanketed by magnificent magenta lettuce rounds, which were dusted in kale salt and banana peel powder. It was a sweet and savory marriage that skipped the formalities of a reception and sprinted straight to the delectable honeymoon.
Rounding out the fantastic affair was a phenomenal masa-flour flatbread, layered with sharp Oaxaca cheese, mushroom mole sauce, sliced portobello mushrooms, toasted sesame seeds, avocado leaf oil and a unique hoja santa leaf, otherwise known as root beer plant. Habanera tangelo fermented carrots accompanied to serve as a hybridized form of the traditional Mexican pickled garnish, touched with the colorful addition of calendula petals.
Also worth noting, around 60 percent of the produce is supplied by local vegetable whisperer John Fontaine and his Rio Gozo farms, proving once again that buying local is not only ideal for the economy but for the taste buds as well.
Originally deciding to forgo the sweet bakery offerings that enticed, I was on such a food high that reconsideration was in order. So as to treat myself, I sauntered back to the counter and requested an espresso and gluten-free cinnamon roll. (Unlike most GF pastries it was divine upon a quick visit to the oven back at my house.) The espresso was so stout in its resolve that I considered tap dancing my way out the door like a bug-eyed cartoon character, though I refrained so as not to bowl over the growing line of patrons waiting to experience the elation I had just. So as I reservedly exited Beacon/Gargantua, I gave a nod to Chef Barainca and the staff, and happily went on my way to a watering hole to hoist up a glass and continue my homage to a legend in the most appropriate fashion.