There's something special about a restaurant that you can enjoy even when it's closed. I had heard that the Kitchen Cafe was open for dinner on the weekends, but when we showed up early one Friday night, we discovered that the restaurant was dark and deserted. So we sat at a picnic table in the plant-filled courtyard (a space that the restaurant shares with several other businesses), enjoying the warm evening twilight, while we decided where to have dinner.
We should have gone home and come back with a picnic, for this courtyard is a wonderful spot. With its fake-front buildings and the old brick livery stable at one end, it has something of the aura of a small Western town. On the other hand, the dry, dusty ambience and the silvery olive tree give it the air of an early California mission. Throw in the theater, the silversmith, a couple of art galleries and a candle shop, and the place has a sort of cross-cultural charm.
Coming back to the restaurant at another time, I got still another sense of place. When it is open, the Kitchen Cafe has the casual ambience of a country cafe in a French village.
The cluttered kitchen is in open view. Near the counter, a deli case of drinks displays a big bowl of fresh-picked green beans and a couple of containers of mascarpone cheese. And there is a modest, unceremonious quality at work here: The restaurant serves only a continental breakfast and a limited lunch. The petite menu lists three or four sandwiches, a few salads and daily quiche and croissant specials.
The Kitchen Cafe offers no apologies, however, nor does it need to. What it does, it does very well. The food isn't simply a good version of what we all know and like: Every dish offers a small surprise.
The tri-tip sandwich consisted of very thin slices of savory, marinated beef on a light sesame bun. The eggplant sandwich had big, bold chunks of eggplant, coated with melted mozzarella cheese and a subtle basil sauce. Both sandwiches were so generously filled, they had to be eaten with a knife and fork.
We loved the homemade leek and artichoke quiche, with its terrific crust. It came with a green salad filled with slices of red and yellow peppers, mushrooms and fire-engine-red tomatoes.
The chicken salad was made of tender chicken--and no mayonnaise. It was piled high on a plate, the crunchy cabbage, onions, and lettuce tossed in a dressing flavored with fennel seeds. It was an interesting addition that seemed just right.
A dessert of tiramisu arrived at the table in a bowl, a heap of chopped up cake that looked like a huge dish of chocolate chip ice cream. It had been considerably enlivened by a hefty shot of liqueur. While we argued vehemently over whether this improved it, we found that it was disappearing before our eyes.
I might take a picnic dinner back to the courtyard some night--it's that charming. But I'd be tempted to order the picnic right from the Kitchen Cafe.
* WHERE AND WHEN
The Kitchen Cafe, 34 N. Palm St., Ventura (805) 641-9926. Continental breakfast and lunch, Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wine and beer, parking lot across street. No credit cards. Lunch for one $6 to $10.