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RESTAURANT REVIEW WHEELER HOT SPRINGS : Sparkling Spa : This desert oasis provides an experience that pampers the senses.

September 20, 1990|HILARY DOLE KLEIN

What a location. On the edge of Ojai, after six miles of meandering through golden, scrub- and oak-covered hills on Maricopa Highway, one arrives at Wheeler Hot Springs with the sense of having traveled backward in time. Here is a desert oasis, nestled in a grove of tall, magnificent palms fed by natural springs.

Since the early 1800s, this spot has drawn people to its therapeutic mineral waters. Today the waters can be taken in the form of hot and cold tubs in private rooms, followed by a massage, then dinner at the restaurant. It is truly an experience to pamper the senses.

The restaurant at Wheeler serves meals worthy of its unique location and history. The menu is fairly simple and changes every week. And its fine fresh vegetables and varied herbs are grown in the restaurant's gardens. There is also a commendable selection of wines--notably California wines--that compete with an intriguing choice of teas, homemade fruit juice blends, Italian sodas and excellent espresso.

You enter a big old-fashioned room that is decorated with sophisticated simplicity and contains a huge stone fireplace. The evening I took my family, the feeling of graciousness was underlined by live cello music, played against a backdrop of happy, night-singing frogs. My son, though he was the only child in the room that night, was treated like the most welcome guest of all. The experience brought out the best in him too. He happily ate a basket of hot herb-flavored rolls with a glass of fresh blueberry juice. Ultimately, he went to sleep in an armchair, leaving the rest of us to enjoy a leisurely meal.

In keeping with the spa origins of the place, the food tends to rely on good taste rather than on calories for effect. The white radish soup I had, for instance, didn't have a shred of cream--it consisted of a thin hot broth with subtle slivers of radish and big savory cilantro leaves.

A really good Caesar salad had freshly grated Parmesan cheese, crisp lettuce and a nice lemony tang. The house salad had an unusual herb flavor and a lovely purple pansy gracing the lettuce. I loved the unexpectedly spicy cold sesame noodles, with crunchy green onions and toasted sesame seeds.

But the grilled prime rib puzzled me. Why would anyone put a perfectly good piece of prime rib on a grill and overcook it? The grilled filet, on the other hand, was superb, tender and coated with a Texas chili glaze, strongly flavored with cumin. Ratatouille was also a great dish, although it was scarcely a real ratatouille. It had more brown rice and assorted seafood than vegetables; we renamed it Seafood Valhalla. The roast chicken was quite plain by itself, and the hot thin sauce that came on the side was as sweet as maple syrup.

Rigatoni had a sauce of black olives, herbs, red onions and sweet, delicious pinion (pine) nuts. It was characteristic of the best the restaurant had to offer: unusual and surprising tastes. The grilled thresher shark was moist and tender, imbued with the aroma of grilled rosemary. The vegetables, in good variety on every plate, were all superbly cooked.

The desserts seemed shockingly sweet for all the lofty virtues of the location. But it was amazing how quickly we adjusted to them. Almond-flavored creme brulee had a lovely crust. We noticed that, after their meal, a table of French diners trooped into the kitchen to congratulate the chef.

I was only sorry Wheeler didn't have rooms to rent that night. A place like this is too good to just pass through.

WHERE AND WHEN

Wheeler Hot Springs Restaurant, 16825 Maricopa Highway, Ojai, (805) 646-8131. Dinner 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Thursday-Sunday; brunch 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday. Beer and wine. Parking lot. American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Dinner for two, food only, $52-$68.

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