On our weekend trip to Ojai, we relished in the landscape as we drove along highway state route 33 from Ventura. Rugged chaparral covered hills, eucalyptus and oak trees blur by the car windows. Admiring such idyllic beauty, a sense of wonder opens the heart. Only 14 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean isn’t so far to go for some soul refreshing.
We took the time to browse the boutique shops along main stretch of Ojai Avenue, ate lunch at a local vegan cafe, and snuck a quick peek inside a wine tasting room before sipping on a flight of handcrafted green tea kombucha. The city of Ojai has a relaxed Californian vibe with the sort of easy-going elegance you can embrace. You might call it bohemian, or modern hippie, perhaps. There’s a genuine aspect of being completely real here, without any pretensions or façades. Ojai has its own kind of style.
An influx of new shop owners, former weekenders-turned-residents, artisans, and a crop of farm-to-table centric restaurants have enriched the area with new life.
We had a peaceful stay at The Ojai Retreat, a mindful place to unplug and unwind. Although the bed & breakfast inn does offer complimentary wifi, you may just want to sit down in the main room (without your phone or laptop) to enjoy a quiet cup of tea while enjoying the “pink moment” sunset. All rooms are TV-free and telephone-free, which makes it perfect to just be in the present rather than distracted by the modern world. You may overhear actual conversations between people sitting in the garden rather than the ping of text messages on handheld devices.
Let go and allow your innate curiosity guide you, though we did discover a few noteworthy spots, including a casual lunch at Hip Vegan Café, and a romantic dinner at The Ranch House. You may need reservations for dinner, but otherwise just go with the Ojai flow.
Our first stop was a casual lunch at Hip Vegan. We sat out on the patio and grooved to the reggae music they had going on in the place. Underneath the soft light coming through the trees, one can sit without much distraction, experiencing a moment of awareness over a salad bowl. An older woman at the next table reads pensively about awakening kundalini energy, as a gaggle of millennial girls nibble on their grain bowls at another table, gossiping about a friend who has surpassed the ‘100K’ (on Instagram). I smiled to myself and plunged a fork into my salad. All of this was so Californian: tempeh salad, vegan food, kundalini energy, Instagram. Joni Mitchell lyrics rewind like an old tape deck in my memory (there was a period of my own twenty something life when all I wanted to do was paint, cook, drink tea, and listen to Joni Mitchell albums). “California, Oh Cal-i-for-nia…” could very well be sung: “Oh-jai California…” (And believe me, I carried on with that “Oh, hi” schtick for awhile. Supposedly, there’s an energetic vortex in Ojai that causes silliness and an affinity for corny word puns. Ojai is a Chumash word for silly, I am guessing.)
This is a place where vegan blackberry cheesecake and tempeh salads are the norm. The soup, white bean and spinach, served in a large bowl, tasted quite similar to something I would make at home. It fed my guy enough to satiate his hunger, with a hearty grain bread served on the side. I lingered over my tempeh salad bowl (Echo Beach Bowl) made with peanut coconut rice, spring mix, sautéed peppers and grilled tempeh, garnished with cilantro. The blackberry cheesecake, full of natural sweetness, made me happy, and knowing that it was made with fresh ingredients I probably ate more than my fair share.
After lunch, we discovered a place off the main street nestled within a courtyard and shared an aperitif of the healthy sort. Revel serves small batch kombucha tea, so we ordered a tasting flight of four green tea kombucha on tap: Beach Cruiser (coconut chai), Kick Flip (ginger), Pink Moment (hibiscus, ginger, orange zest), Red Dragon (pomegranate). All of their kombucha teas are made with green tea, honey and their own unique Jun culture, fermented with honey rather than sugar, which acts as microbial support to the blend. The taste isn’t as vinegary as the sort of bottled kombucha teas sold in markets these days. It’s somewhere on the palate between champagne and beer, yet more subtle, enhanced by a hint of flavor from the other ingredients.
We had reservations for dinner at The Ranch House at eight. Even though it was chilly outside, heat lamps and romantic lighting warmed us right up. Service was attentive and pleasant, and the menu offered plenty for a hungry vegetarian: sage and rosemary brown butter gnocchi, butternut squash and turmeric bisque, vegetarian pavé. For my omnivorous love, the diver sea scallops with saffron and mushroom risotto, and for his main, the sea bass in lime cilantro butter upon forbidden rice served with fresh seasonal veggies.
While we often dine out as food critics during media dinners, lavished with the best dishes, profuse amounts of wine, and much public relations fuss, the simplicity of being two at a table without fanfare gave us a refreshing moment to connect with each other. No futzing with our iPhones and cameras, hovering over the plates for that perfect Instagrammable shot before actually eating it. (Media dinners do not count as date nights.) The gnocchi, perfectly chewy little pillows of doughy semolina and potato dumplings, doused in a suggestion of butter sauce. This was a small taste (hence appetizer) before the soup and main entrée. The soup arrived hot, nothing fancy, just creamy squash purée with a good balance of spice and flavor to keep my interest in scooping around the edges of the bowl until it was entirely gone. I was pleased that the main course, vegetarian pavé, was given a headline on the menu. The layered pavé was larger than I imagined, with generous portobello mushroom slices between layers of squash and zucchini, sauced in tangy tomato, made cheesy with vegan cheese (I have a peculiar appreciation for Daiya cheese and other vegan cheeses). Underneath layers of well-sauced vegetables, a thick cut of moist polenta cake added a sweet and savory note, just the sort of cozy texture you want in a dish like this. I nearly licked the plate. I could imagine it improved by good French cheese, but the vegan cheese taste and gooey texture worked with the tomato sauce just fine. We shared a trio of desserts, and both liked the petit fours-sized pumpkin cheesecake most. So we did that thing where you leave a small bite for the other until one of us takes the whole bite. After dinner, a pot of jasmine tea to share between us as they closed down, but no one asked us to leave even though we were the last ones at a table. It did get colder around ten, which forced us inside to lounge on the long crimson sofa before going back to our cozy little bungalow up the hill.
I had only previously known Ojai from visits to the now shuttered Wheeler Hot Springs, where a soak in hot mineral spring baths followed by a stroll along the sleepy main street was about all there was to do. But there were many that found creative and spiritual magic in the area. Artist Beatrice Wood and philosopher Krishnamurti felt the geomagnetic vortex energy in Ojai valley and contemplated amongst the jagged beauty of the Topa Topa Mountains. In the 1930’s, director Frank Capra filmed Lost Horizon in Ojai, the location for the film’s Shangri-La valley. Now today’s visitors and residents are responding to the same vibration. Shangri-La, heaven on earth, happy valley.
We plan to return to Ojai to try other restaurants that we noted on our walk, indulge in a little wine tasting, try the coffee and bakery shops, and discover other hotels and inns on another weekend escape.
Here are some culinary Ojai interests on our list:
- Ojai Olive Oil tasting room of their local olive oil.
- Regalo Olive Oil offers tastings and tours.
- Ojai Certified Farmers’ Market for fresh local fruits, vegetables, jams, honey, olive oil, beeswax candles, flowers, and more every Sunday.
- Friend’s Ranches for avocados, honey, citrus fruits and Pixie tangerines.
- Frog Creek Farm where you can pick your own lavender on weekends during the summer months.
- Eating Ojai Food Tours takes you on a tour of the culinary scene to meet chefs, restaurant owners, offering a taste of their cuisine.
- Wine Tasting in Ojai taste Southern California wines in Ojai.