The minute I walked into this cafe/bakery/sandwich shop/art gallery/hangout, I felt right at home.
The cute little awning over the door and small window box filled with flowers outside City Bakery do little to hide the industrial origins of the building. Inside, a bare wooden ceiling with exposed fixtures looks more unfinished than stylish. Long, low tables loaded with coffee and teas, and cases filled with baked temptations separate the prep area from the eating space. The place is one part hip Los Angeles eatery and two parts basement of a church set up for a potluck social.
City Bakery is a great place to bring the kids and prove to them that life is full of marvelous treats. It's also a good place to come with a friend for an intense exchange of ideas. Or go alone, bring a notebook and have a conversation with your muse. What especially endeared the place to me were the neat pile of children's toys in one corner, a basket of magazines labeled "recycled culture," and a kids' growth chart that has expanded and now covers an entire section of wall with childish growth achievements.
The menu, written on a board, is quite simple--a mere three salads, five sandwiches and soup, which they seem to run out of quickly. The variety and attraction are provided by the breads--a different kind is baked every day of the week. From whole-wheat sourdough-raisin to steel-cut oat, these breads are original and delicious. If I had a restaurant, City Bakery is definitely the place where I would get my baked goods.
Turkey and cheese salad (a generous half portion for $3) came with organic lettuce, bits of smoked turkey, sweet red onions, mild crumbly goat cheese, a great lemon dressing with spikes of dill and tiny slices of the freshest, sweetest bread imaginable. It turned out to be potato bread, which they make on Thursdays. The other two salads on the menu were a mixed green salad and a Mediterranean salad that comes with wonderful, wine-soaked black olives.
The meat-loaf sandwich is a must. The meat loaf had the texture of a good hearty pate, crisp on the edges and spicy besides. The tuna wasn't exactly tuna salad, but rather wedges of tuna meat (a little dry, but great if you don't care much for mayonnaise) with tomatoes and lettuce. I tried it on the five-grain sourdough bread, more sweet than sour and full of soft, crunchy, multicolored grains.
City Works, a turkey and cheese sandwich ($4.25), featured Swiss cheese and smoked turkey that was more like ham than turkey. It was spread with a layer of pesto sauce and chewy, sun-dried tomatoes. It came with a macaroni salad dressed up with ginger, mushrooms, poppy seeds, carrots and a bit too much sesame oil for its own good.
Desserts at City Bakery are marvelous. They have such confidence in their ingredients, they're not afraid to go lightly on the sugar. Lemon bars were flaky and buttery, with a thin lemon filling. Banana nut bread was nutty to the point of chunkiness--it would make a terrific breakfast bread.
Blueberry-raspberry pie was dished up in sweet disarray. Another dessert not afraid of being called mushy was the peach-berry cobbler. The fruit was sublime, and it had a perfect crumble of a crust, not too sweet and slightly crispy. The apple tart consisted of a nice thin crust, covered with small slices of tart-sweet apples and a cheese filling.
Sometimes a baker, like a pianist or juggler or mathematician, has a kind of gift that is unique. City Bakery's owner, Mabel Chase, has this gift. I can't help wondering if she doesn't sometimes show up in the early hours of the morning to find bouquets from grateful food fans, flowers lying in wait for her on the sidewalk under the awning.
* WHERE AND WHEN
City Bakery, 2358-C E. Main St., Ventura. 643-0861. Open 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 7 to 10 p.m. Saturdays. No alcoholic beverages. Street parking. No cards. Lunch for one, $4.50 to $7.50.