The Cave Restaurant
4435 McGrath St., Suite 301
Many of you reading this have probably been to The Cave, the popular, cozy restaurant and wine tasting room tucked inside a warehouse-style wine store (The Ventura Wine Co.) in a Ventura industrial park. The place has a legion of wine and foodie fans. There’s a new executive chef, Henry Martinez, however, who introduced new menu items in January. I visited in March, when the restaurant’s small plates menu (with dishes designed to be shared, and that changes monthly) had one item that remained and has apparently become a favorite: Cool Ranch fried chicken ($12). It looked finger-lickin’ good, but I didn’t order it on this go-around.
I had another mission in mind.
The first time that I really fell in love, I asked the fella who would later become my fiancé, “What’s your favorite dish? I’d like to cook you a special dinner.”
“Beef Wellington,” he responded.
I’d never had Beef Wellington and I certainly had no idea how to prepare it! After looking up the somewhat overwhelming recipe in The Joy of Cooking, I politely demurred and have never made it to this day.
For those who aren’t familiar with this very old-fashioned entrée that originated in England, filet mignon is coated with a paste made of pâté and duxelles (finely chopped mushrooms, shallots, garlic and thyme) and then wrapped in a puff pastry and baked. It’s a delicious, but very labor-intensive dish. Imagine my surprise when I discovered Beef Wellington — named in honor of the Duke of Wellington who defeated Napoleon in the battle of Waterloo — on The Cave’s “small plates” menu. Waterloo or bust! I thought to myself.
Chef Martinez’s version — accompanied by roasted potatoes with micro greens and delicious gravy that I sopped up with his equally delish homemade sourdough bread — is supreme. Unfortunately, my friend ordered it “well done” and it was served rare — so we sent it back and had to wait more than half an hour for the cooks to fix it. We’d already endured a long wait for our other orders, which included an excellent truffle mushroom risotto with a tasty, earthly mix of enoki, hen-of-the-woods and king oyster mushrooms, topped with a crispy parmesan chip, which arrived long before my friend’s Beef Wellington. Both should have been served at the same time.
The pork belly wedge salad (another throwback to the past) with candied pork belly to start was easy to share, two crisp wedges of iceberg lettuce drizzled with bleu cheese dressing and crispy pork belly that was more like a thick slice of bacon (so good, I could have eaten more!). I like most salads lightly dressed, but this one could have handled more dressing as well as more tang.
The good news, perhaps, is that my friend and I opted to sit at the counter/bar that faces the kitchen so while we waited we were entertained by the chefs at work. The pizzas coming out of the oven looked terrific, the cooking team of five was very busily engaged and it was fun to see and hear them work (“Hot dish, hot pie”; “Is that wedge salad going out?”) as they carefully prepared dishes and set them out for the servers.
Sometime later, we asked if we could move from the counter and share a dessert in “the cave” — and moved into the more atmospheric room that we’d hopped in and out of for small wine pours/tastings from the dispensers, using a card loaded up with a few bucks.
The fruit tart was a surprise of sorts, the crust a bit like a Scottish shortbread with banana cream and strawberries topped by a hard shell chocolate dome — very tasty and required more than a spoon to deconstruct.
I could go into the wines, but suffice to say that we were familiar with many — Margerum, The Ojai Vineyard, Chalk Hill — and I think it’s smarter to just buy a bottle or by the glass. The wine dispensers are fun, if you don’t mind hopping up and down to buy one-ounce pours, as we did (to get more bang for our buck).
There are burgers, house-made potato chips, a delicious-looking prosciutto and fig crostini with Cambozola cheese spread, fig jam, crispy prosciutto and balsamic pearls, seared ahi bites and more.
In the end, I’d have to say, don’t be in a hurry, enjoy the wines and savor the delicious food. While the timing was off during our visit, we did enjoy sitting at the “chef’s table” counter and catching all the action in the kitchen that provided a very different atmosphere and peek behind the scenes then the two “cave rooms,” which includes a back room with glass bubbles floating from the ceiling as well as its own wine dispenser.