Ojai is a favorite getaway spot, close to Santa Barbara

ojai-snow-sceneOne of our favorites easy trips from L.A. is a visit to Ojai, 45 minutes from Santa Barbara. We go for its boutique hotels, art galleries, and recreational opportunities including hiking, and spiritual retreats. The city’s self-styled nickname is “Shangri-La” referencing the natural beauty of this health-and-spirituality-focused region. While there are no known references, it is commonly claimed that the mountains visible from the city were used, but then cut, from the 1937 movie as the mystical sanctuary of James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon.

Ojai is the quintessential peaceful California town that time seems to have forgotten, a sleepy Bohemian village with a unique, artful flair. Ojai is home to world-class golf courses, artists, boutiques, fine restaurants and a variety of festivals and events for every season.
We go there also for fine dining. Azu Restaurant & Bar, has the very best Mediterranean cuisine drawn from an exclusive, Ojai-sourced menu. Over thirteen years ago, owner Laurel Moore lovingly restored downtown Ojai’s Bill Baker’s 1910 building, and in turn created Ojai’s top gathering place for community, curious foodies and wine lovers. Her daughter, Elizabeth Haffner came on as general manager in 2006 and together they have built a warm, creative environment filled with inventive dishes and a family-like atmosphere where locals catch up at the end of the week, and visitors to Ojai find an easy mix of casual sophistication, flavors of local soil, and the valley’s most extensive wine list.

Sit outside on the patio or sidewalk or select a table inside surrounded by warm woods and good art. The décor is tasteful, refreshingly strong and simple.
Chef Damien Halderman is firmly in control as Chef de Cuisine. We enjoyed the tastiest and freshest ingredients with pure natural flavor of local farm- driven produce and flavors of Spain, the Mediterranean and North Africa. Azu offers Organic, Vegan, Paleo, Gluten Free, Vegetarian as well as healthy nutritional options for kids. The restaurant caters to couples nights out, breakfast, lunch, large parties, wedding receptions, rehearsal dinners, wedding brunch, happy hour connoisseurs, anniversary celebrations, outdoor dining, tapas tastings, wine & beer flights.

We started with a plate of huge marinated Italian olives, a honey-baked Brie with candied walnuts and toast points and some curried friend cauliflower. We reveled in the hummus. We were tempted by paella, chile relleno and spicy mussels but our main lunch choices were an arugula & dried fig salad studded with crispy Serrano ham, feta, almonds, and fig balsamic vinaigrette; squash soup with roasted squash, yogurt and walnuts; a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato jam, fontina cheese, artichoke hearts on texas toast; and braised short rib soft tacos with salsa roja, crema, onions and cilantro in house-made tortillas. It is obvious someone with talent, a sure hand for flavors and sparks of creativity is in the kitchen.
Azu Restaurant & Bar is a perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of the city or a special night out. You cannot beat the casual atmosphere and farm-fresh California tapas, fresh juice cocktails, and local wines and beers. It is the perfect place to find sanctuary plus top culinary-inspired dishes. Good news: the owners have started their own nano brewery called Ojai Valley Brewery and plan to have their very own small batch craft beers brewed by husband Jeremy Haffner on tap in the Fall of this year. They are focusing on local ingredients to brew with like their “White Pixie,” a Belgium White Ale using local organic pixie tangerine peel and our small batch Moon Valley Marmalade also made from local Pixies. Their “Chaparral Ale” is an Amber Ale with locally foraged sage. Azu Restaurant & Bar is located at 457 E. Ojai Ave., (805) 640-7987, http://www.azuojai.com

An even brighter culinary candle burns at Suzanne’s Cuisine, simply the very best restaurant in the Ojai Valley. Owner Suzanne Roll and her daughter, Sandra Moore, have been producing excellence since the early 90s by regularly visiting the farmer’s markets for the freshest and best produce and then, inspired by their love of France, having their chefs prepare the most delicate and flavorful of dishes.
Suzanne was an excellent home cook before starting her restaurant and trained in a Michelin-starred restaurant in France. Italian by heritage, she is what we all look for in a restaurateur: tremendous talent, charm, in love with food and 100% authentic.
This is Ojai’s shiniest star, a gourmet hideaway tucked in a French garden where the inspired French-Italian menu changes according to the season’s bounty.
Set quietly off Ojai’s main street, the restaurant’s large trees shade a rustic front porch. Inside, a small cozy bar greets you and the warm lighting, dark woods, fragrant flowers and sand-colored walls set a magical tone. In the back is a beautiful patio with marble bistro tables and a garden right out of Provence with topiaries, lush greenery, a bubbling fountain and even hummingbirds at play. This sunny setting is perfection for a romantic lunch or dinner. On cooler days, a fireplace crackles.
The menu clearly shows that someone very talented is in command. The cuisine is very much a seasonal affair. And it changes regularly but seems content to focus on creative French-Italian-California fare.

Our dinner began with a basket of excellent breads, always a barometer of an outstanding restaurant. Here, the butter thoughtfully comes at room temperature. A small Caesar salad had a sharp swagger. A crab cake drizzled with aioli was heavenly. Zucchini flowers stuffed with goat cheese were pretty to look at, bursting with flavor. Sauteed soft shell crabs were salty-sweet, tender-crispy enhanced by blood orange salsa. Grilled salmon on a bed of wilted sauerkraut and a dill beurre blanc sauce was a tantalizing play of flavors and textures. We ended the repast with refreshing home made vanilla ice cream partnered by a fruit crisp.
And oh, what we didn’t have and longed for: steamed mussels and clams Provencal, chimichurri grilled prime rib, Golden trout grilled with rosemary and lemon, garlic seared jumbo scallops, Thai style with coconut green curry and rice noodles, roasted pork medallions with roasted seasonal fruit and Cambozola, the list goes on, all of the highest quality, innovative while remaining unfussy and made with love. Best of all, the entrees are fairly priced, most around $25. A sensible person has also priced the wine list which abounds in local and international choices that do not require a maharajah’s purse.
This is Ojai’s best, and we venture to say one of California’s best, a place to decadently linger over lunch or dinner with a glass of port or brandy and marvel at nature and just how much excellent ingredients can influence the most simple of dishes. We might add the service was flawless, very knowledgeable and genuinely friendly.

Suzanne Cuisine is located at 502 W. Ojai Avenue, (805) 640-1961. Open daily except for Tuesday for lunch and dinner. It is popular so reservations are highly recommended.

Beautiful downtown Ojai is an easy few minutes walk from our favorite inn there, the Emerald Iguana. Stroll from the Inn to see art galleries, the Arcade specialty shops and boutiques. The outdoors is always beckoning with a delightful climate and Ojai as the starting point for miles of trails, parks and points of interest. Nestled in an idyllic valley, Ojai is bordered by the spectacular Los Padres National forest. Close by Lake Casitas offers miles of magnificent shoreline teaming with wild bird-life and boasts excellent fishing. Abundant orange and avocado groves line the valley.

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