PICTURED: Chef Ren Weigang at Pacific by NoRu. Photo submitted
by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer
Twice-cooked pork belly with butter-braised spring onions and Yakiniku barbecue, topped with baby arugula and micro greens and dressed with aged sherry.
Pacific by NoRu takes its name from its two founders — James Norton and Ren Weigang, affectionately called “Ru” by friends — and their shared love of the sea. Hailing from Ventura and Hawaii, respectively, the two met as teenage surfing enthusiasts in Ventura, and quickly bonded over waves and food that were equally tasty. Despite years of travel and different experiences, they stayed close, and eventually opened their upscale bistro in Downtown Ventura in late 2018. The menu reflects the culinary variety found on both sides of the Pacific Ocean: fresh, local, organic ingredients, for which Ventura County is famous, prepared in a distinctive style reminiscent of both California cuisine and Hawaiin fusion.
Weigang is also the chef, who worked in culinary hot spots such as the Big Island, Napa Valley and France before moving to Ventura County. Like many food industry professionals, his love of cooking started close to home, with his Italian grandfather, William Santo.
“Those are my first good memories of cooking . . . cooking his pastas,” Weigang recalls.
Weigang first started working in restaurants around Hawaii, “and I just started getting good at it . . . and doors started opening.”
The resort industry was his proving ground, giving him access to quality ingredients and kitchens that allowed him to explore and invent, as well as a comprehensive culinary education: He had the opportunity to try his hand at cuisines from all over the world. In addition, he helped launch a few different Japanese restaurants in Hawaii — a time of Weigang’s life that he describes as “exciting.”
“I’m comfortable in most cuisines because of the resorts,” he says. But Japanese food, in particular, is his passion. “Coming from Hawaii, I’m very confident with Japanese ingredients. I love Japanese food.”
Weigang first came to Ventura County in the 1990s to work at the Ojai Valley Inn. Later he worked at private country clubs and went to culinary school at the Culinary Institute of America. He moved back to Hawaii when he got married, and re-immersed himself in the lucrative resort scene. After getting divorced, he moved back to California, where he reconnected with Norton. The two cooked up their restaurant scheme over a glass of wine at Weigang’s dining table.
“Our focus is putting out good farm-to-table food,” he says of the Pacific by NoRu concept. “Trying to use the best quality products with a Pacific Island flair. It’s a mix of different cuisines; it’s evolving.”
Weigang’s personal journey is reflected in every aspect of the Pacifc by NoRu menu. Japanese offerings include yuzu/miso chicken kabobs and gyoza. There are Hawaiian standards like kalua pork and poke. Homemade tagliatelle, gnocchi and risotto are nods to Weigang’s Italian heritage. There’s also a wonderful Kobe beef burger and fabulous flatbreads. All dishes are prepared using seasonal produce and other ingredients selected at the peak of flavor and freshness, and plated with an artist’s attention to detail and aesthetics.
The cocktail menu is put together with the same care and flair. Weigang credits bartender De Lonne Kelly with crafting Pacific by NoRu’s famously fabulous libations, made with house-infused spirits, fresh juice and top-shelf liquor. “He’s very creative,” Weigang says of Kelly. “I’ll bring in different ingredients and he comes up with some fun things.”
Delivering haute fusion cuisine doesn’t come cheap, and the restaurant’s price point attests to that — which has proved challenging in Ventura.
“Ventura is a tough town,” Weigang explains. “There aren’t too many higher-end restaurants. It’s not like LA or Santa Barbara . . . We don’t have the clientele for it.”
But Weigang and Norton have maintained their commitment to offering an exceptional culinary experience. They chose a good location with a smaller footprint (the spot near the corner of Oak and Main streets is long, skinny and not overly spacious) that didn’t need much in the way of construction, and were always prudent about crowd control (even pre-pandemic): advance reservations were necessary to avoid a long wait.
In Weigang’s view, the prices on the menu should be justified by exceptionally prepared and presented food with flawless service in a comfortable atmosphere in which to savor every bite and sip. And that meant not overwhelming the kitchen or the waitstaff, which might sacrifice the quality of any one of these elements.
“We want everyone to have a good experience,” he insists. “When you come into a restaurant, you want to feel like it’s worth paying for it, and that you’re happy that you had that meal.”
During the pandemic, Pacific by NoRu mostly shutdown altogether. There was an effort to offer takeout early on, but that was abandoned for simply shutting the doors until times were better. As first outdoor and then indoor dining have opened back up, Pacific by NoRu is starting to see its regulars trickling back in, as well as new diners looking for upscale cuisine.
“I feel like everyone is wanting to get back to mingling (safely) again. Some of our older clientele has been coming back,” Weigang says. “Finally we’re rehiring. Our solid crew [including Kelly and chef de cuisine Kyle Kranjack] came back and we’re getting busier to where we have to hire new people.”
And as Weigang points out, no restaurant can survive without reliable staff and customers.
“I firmly believe that a restaurant is not just a chef,” he says. “It has to do with the customers and what they want. It’s a partnership . . . It’s my food . . . and I see the vision . . . but the restaurant doesn’t go without an amazing team.”
“My main goal,” Weigang continues, “is just to have a good, consistent, solid restaurant.”
Pacific by NoRu, 394 E. Main St., Ventura, 805-205-9618, pacificbynoru.com.