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ON THE JOB : RESTAURATEURS : Changing Tastes : The former owners of Voila have turned Ojai's old Backstage Restaurant into MK's Restaurant.

June 07, 1990|GEORGE KEENEN

Marty Gay and his wife, Michelle Sandoval, who once turned a Ventura sandwich shop into Voila, the fanciest restaurant on Thompson Avenue, are up to their old tricks again.

They have taken the old Backstage restaurant in Ojai and turned it into MK's Restaurant, with a menu Marty describes in two words: "intense tastes," and an ambience Michelle describes in three: "elegant and funky."

After more than a year of planning and six months of furious preparation, MK's opened quietly last week for family and friends.

"We just opened the door a crack and went pssst," Gay said.

This soft opening gave them a chance to set all MK's systems in motion to see if the whole thing would fly. A full menu is now being offered, and the official grand opening is set for June 18.

"People kept asking us if we got rid of the Backstage's pond," Sandoval said. "Well, when we got here there was nothing but a mosquito-infested garden, chin high in weeds."

The pond is gone, but there's a waterfall--MK's one touch of extravagance--cascading out of a new stone wall.

The deck, which was rotting, has been replaced. And the old wood paneling inside, which made the place so dark, has been ripped out and replaced with light, textured plaster.

MK's--the name consists of the couple's first and middle initials--is more than just a renovated Backstage. A state-of-the-art computer ordering system has been installed. And there's a club concept at play here. More about that later.

Most of all, MK's is an attempt to create a comfortable establishment where people feel at home and like to just hang out.

There's a theme: California old and new. But, as Gay said, "You can't just create a theme on paper and apply it with a decorator. That never works."

Instead, they did much of the work themselves, with help from a coterie of artist friends. And they took their time.

And, as it turned out, it was a good thing they weren't in a hurry. Sandoval had an automobile accident and that really slowed them down. There were the usual financial nightmares and bureaucratic snafus. And Voila itself demanded a great deal of attention, until it was sold this past January.

"I'm going to be here 15 hours a day," Sandoval said. "I'll practically live here. And because it's home, the atmosphere has to be different--not like a business."

"We found there were advantages to taking a long time," said Gay. "You make these finds. Things happen."

The first inspiration for the design of MK's came in January of 1988 on a trip to Las Hadas, a resort in Colima, Mexico. Gay and Sandoval took one glance at the "Mexicanized Moorish" look, with its Mosques and whitewashed surfaces and said, "My God, that's it!"

Their first big find was a three-candle Chumash candelabra, which they bought in Malibu and set in the middle of the mess they had created.

Another key find was a set of Ann Mallory-designed plates, with six patterns of sumi brushwork representing joy, risk, balance, blessing, change and unity.

"As soon as we saw them we realized they were perfect for Ojai," Sandoval said.

Once Voila was sold, the work went faster. They refinished the pine floor at the front entrance, said to have been milled in 1908 for the old Oaks Hotel. Then artist Julia Pinkham, who usually works on fabric, painted a rug based on a Chumash ceremonial design.

The ceiling remains the same: corrugated metal and exposed beams. "We were going to change it," Sandoval said, "but when the walls were done, it looked good."

Both Sandoval and Gay enjoyed the do-it-yourself part.

"I learned to whitewash, refinish, rivet--God, all kinds of stuff," Sandoval said. "And I'm watching the drywallers, so when we build our own house I'll know how."

Gay is proud of a solid, once-beautiful mahogany door that he destroyed on purpose. "We're in 1990 now, but we wanted to think of this place as having existed 70 years," he said. So he sanded the door down, beat it with chains and painted over the fine wood. All part of the concept.

The takeout area is draped with Mexican gourds and local bananas, and picnic baskets that can be bought or borrowed for excursions to Libby Park. Twenties and '30s velvet "Deco senoritas " add to the old California look.

The menu is California old and new. It's not in-your-face vegetarian, but a large part of the menu will revolve around grains and vegetables. Cream, eggs and butter have not been eliminated, but vegetarians will feel very comfortable here.

And for people who want meat, it's there. The New York steak will be served with roasted garlic butter. And the hamburger will be, if the menu is correct, "big, juicy and everything ground cow should be."

"The Board" keys the whole menu. It's a wooden grazing platter of items such as grilled vegetables, soft cheese, salsa and "surprises." Put them in tacos, stuff them in pita bread or eat them as finger food.

"We're not afraid to have people say, 'This sounds spicy,' " said Gay. "You'll taste onions, chutneys and all kinds of chili. I make six different salsas now."

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