Is it possible that some day Ojai's claim to fame will be as the home of the original Nora's Bistro?
We've been watching this restaurant get into gear, intrigued from the beginning by the arty teasers--big bold primitive paintings put up during construction. As it turned out, the restaurant is almost as much about art and color as it is about food and taste; and all of these are highly pleasing.
On a trip to Key West, the restaurant's owner discovered Jeff Beal, an artist who works primarily in hand-painted furniture. He brought Beal to Ojai to paint the store, so to speak.
And did Beal paint. Walls, counters and furniture glisten with warm pinks, hot oranges and dancing purples in a wild melee of patterns and designs evocative of Caribbean folk art.
Ruling the roost are the portraits of Nora, Beal's mythical creation. Nora, it seems, is a cake and steak waitress from Desire, Ohio, who ended up in Ojai with her dreams intact.
The restaurant was conceived by a couple pursuing their own dreams. Harold Schneider is a film producer who always wanted to own a restaurant. Amy is a savvy, supportive wife with good ideas.
The Schneiders are a bit like the couple who invited the world to dinner. Amy appears somewhat unnerved by it all, though she's remarkably gracious. He has the easy manners of a good host and loves to get into discussions about his well-chosen wines. The food is eclectic and fine enough to satisfy a discriminating adult. The pizza ($10.50 regular), with its easy choice between pepperoni or sausage, is right up the alley of the Every Kid--just don't mention the grilled vegetable topping.
The pizza was delicious, with a light, chewy, almost flaky crust. The bread served at the table--with bottles of light olive oil and balsamic vinegar--was a nice cross between pizza crust and \o7 focaccia \f7 bread.
A sampler of the daily antipasto ($7 for 5) was one of the best cold appetizers I've ever had, consisting of sweet, subtle eggplant; very fine, fresh \o7 haricot vert\f7 ; crisp asparagus--both vegetables in delicious dressings; roasted unpeeled peppers; and little buttons of fresh mozzarella with a light dressing and the fragrance of basil. It was nearly a perfect meal in itself.
The salads were typical of the colorful originality at work (and play) here. A cheerful green salad with oranges, walnuts and bright brown balsamic vinegar dressing was refreshingly offbeat, its light acidity tempered by the sweetness of nuts and citrus.
Even more lush was the raspberry spinach salad ($3.75 for half) with bits of mild feta cheese. The raspberries were so pungent, it seemed like a leafy green fruit salad.
It would be tempting to stop by Nora's on a daily basis just to try the soup of the day. We had a carrot soup on one trip that tasted like a toasted butternut soup and deliciously evoked the sense of fall in the air.
One could happily make meals from the foregoing items. Yet five entrees and several pastas were also offered. They came with tons of vegetables; and the potatoes, whether fried or roasted, were particularly good. A dry rice pilaf was less satisfying.
The daily fresh fish--salmon--had been cooked perfectly and was served with a light dill sauce. Cornish game hen was simply rendered, more homey than innovative, stuffed with vegetables and roasted.
My favorite entree was the shrimp scampi ($14) served in a fine \o7 checca \f7 sauce of tomatoes and garlic. A pasta dish with the same hot, garlicky sauce worked very well, but the bow ties with Bolognese sauce seemed geared for a child's undemanding palate. However, grilled Moroccan lamb sausages ($11.50), with sweet spices and a hint of sun-drenched raisins in the flavor, were wonderful.
While the cappuccino was a sweet disaster of inauthenticity, whipped cream and chocolate, the desserts were good--especially a custard \o7 creme brulee \f7 sealed with a thin sheet of burnt sugar. What they called a \o7 Fijian \f7 cookie ($.50) was simply a darned good, crisp oatmeal cookie glamorized by an esoteric name, a touch of ginger, a fresh raspberry and a sprig of mint. It had that extra added touch. Nora would approve.
* WHAT: Nora's Bistro
* WHERE: 423 E. Ojai Ave., Ojai
* WHEN: Open for lunch and dinner, Thursday-Monday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
* COST: Dinner for two, food only, $28-$52
* FYI: Wine and beer, credit cards, 640-6672