Once I caught the chef-owner of Chez Kim sitting down and crocheting in the back of the kitchen. It was a shock, like seeing Robin Williams with his mouth closed.
Here I'd been wondering how she finds the time to come out of her kitchen and greet customers. Besides being the chef each evening, Kim also cuts her own meats, fillets the fresh fish, makes the sauces and the pastas and does the baking.
This bundle of activity is burying her talent behind a storefront entrance barely six feet wide in Ventura's gentrifying but still grungy old downtown. Chez Kim is truly obscure. To find it, you've got to find one of the world's smallest signs.
Luckily, the room seems a bit larger once you're inside. It isn't as boisterous as a Paris bistro, though it has a bistrolike intimacy. The effect is really one of sparkle and flowers.
Some of the sparkle comes from the attractive table settings, with colorfully arranged glassware, flowered tablecloths and cutlery. A lot of the sparkle, though, is from the room's hostess, who is not French, but Korean, and she's been running Ventura's edition of a Parisian bistro for about five years.
The menu is bistro-simple, and the hearty portions also make you think of a bistro. For instance, the split pea soup. No smoked or meaty flavor in this one, since no meat is used; no cream either. It has a crunchy, heavy texture and a fresh, simple flavor of peas, vegetables, wine and herbs.
Among the appetizers, the escargots are heavily dosed with garlic. Before we become too comfortable with the idea that this is a French restaurant, though, we spy an appetizer with the suspiciously Italian name spiedini : a narrow piece of French bread stuffed, covered with cheese, then baked in marinara sauce. On a platter, this is plenty for two.
The menu turns out to have a powerful Italian presence. There are several fresh pastas, such as ravioli, in a coarse-textured pesto sauce tangy with basil.
We tried samples of both Kim's meat cutting and her fish filleting one evening. The fish was a lovely salmon fillet poached in white wine in a sauce of butter and dill with a sweet tang. The tournedos was a large piece of tender, beautifully cooked filet mignon, floating in a cream sauce flavored with Roquefort.
None of us would run in here for the salads, which could use less dressing and more subtlety, especially in their version of a Caesar salad. And it must be admitted that the desserts are undistinguished. The Black Forest cake, though our waitress swore it had been made on the premises, struck me as the sort of thing that might have come from some bakery down the street.
But these are minor faults, all things considered. In this unpromising old downtown area, Chez Kim is a tasty hideaway.
* THE DETAILS: Chez Kim, 420 E. Main Street, Ventura, (805) 648-7028. Dinner 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Beer and wine. All major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $35-$55.