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RESTAURANT REVIEW : A Garden of Well-Versed Dishes : The charming new Ojai eatery offers vegetarian fare as well as more opulent mainstream choices. The results, however, are spotty.

March 31, 1994|LEONARD REED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Garden Terrace Restaurant occupies the former space of Govinda's Veggie Buffet, the vegetarian outpost just north of Ojai's downtown arcade on Ojai Avenue. A great charm of this site is the setting: a pillared, stucco-and-tile courtyard leading into a simple, well-lighted dining room that takes on added warmth from a commanding fireplace.

An added charm now is the new menu of California cuisine--mixed grill, light saute dishes, pasta and salad offerings--though vegetarian specials are offered nightly. It is clear the place seeks to build a bridge that spans the sometimes severe world of vegetarianism with other, perhaps more opulent, mainstream choices.

To wit: It is possible to start out with a bracing fresh lentil soup, audaciously spiked with deep curries and free of meat or its byproducts, only to move on to a decadent helping of duck sausage fanned out over pears sauteed in brandy. Likewise, it is possible for two diners to order entrees from the extremes: rich rib eye steak with wild mushrooms and red wine sauce, and zucchini casserole, laced with fragrant fresh herbs and topped (optionally, for the asking) with a cheese of your choosing.

While this is a happy joining of two culinary worlds, the food in recent visits shows mixed results.

The crab cake over corn cake with tangy dill sauce ($6.95) is a complete original and wonderful in result: fiery spicing frames a generous "burger" of sweet crab meat, all made silken by the intensely pungent dill. But a less demanding, though smartly conceived dish, cappellini with artichoke, sun-dried tomato, garlic, black olives and basil ($10.95), flopped: Pleasant but blurry and indistinct in its many flavors, this entree found little help in overcooked pasta that was chopped into pieces in the kitchen.

With some poking around the menu, you will find success at this pleasing new venue; for now, select carefully. One only hopes that in the coming months the Garden Terrace will fine-tune some of its dicier offerings so that its worthy vision can be fully realized.

The crab cake, clearly, is the appetizer of choice. The duck sausage ($7.95), sampled on two visits, was peppery and vivid in flavor once, and less so the next time; may the follow-up be aberrant. Shrimp cocktail ($7.95) is nicely turned out: fresh, firm, cooked just enough to avoid toughness. But baked Brie in puff pastry ($6.95) suffered from less-than-first-rate cheese and dough that was oil-soaked all round. You just may be happiest of all with soups--particularly the lentil--which in recent visits were uniformly excellent, fresh, deeply flavored.

The house salad of mixed greens ($2.50) is delightfully crisp and lightly dressed. Something called The French Touch ($7.95), if self-consciously named, succeeds in joining butter lettuce with apple slices, chevre and a delicate vinaigrette.

Among meat dishes, roast pork loin with orange curry sauce ($12.95) was deeply flavorful and satisfying, if a bit over-roasted. Broiled lamb-loin medallions ($17.95) were just good: The meat, perfectly cooked and fork-tender, lacked flavor, a problem compounded by a strangely wan thyme-infused sauce.

Poached salmon filet ($13.95), however, a special, was a standout for its delicate flavor and texture and also generous cut. And two vegetarian specials (each $9.95), the zucchini casserole and layered grilled eggplant with herbs, were triumphs of the genre: firm in texture, deeply flavorful both in primary ingredients and in the incorporation of fresh herbs.

Desserts here enjoy the highest standard of success. Pear/apple tarte tatin ($4.95) is exquisitely fresh, with sharply defined flavors and textures. Chocolate hazelnut flourless cake ($4.95) is, appropriately, a killer; and the carrot cake ($4), but for its profusion of too-sweet icing, is dense, fragrant, moist--the real thing.

The Garden Terrace has a small, smartly drawn wine list and some handsome offerings by the glass. But in recent visits the house had trouble furnishing the best of its reds by-the-glass, despite such labeling on the wine list; a first-choice glass of Byron Pinot Noir ($6) was bumped to an also unavailable second-choice Rancho Sisquoc Cabernet Sauvignon ($5.50) before, finally, the server arrived with an opened bottle of Sausalito Canyon Zinfandel ($5.50). You may have better luck.

Bottle prices are moderately high, moreover, a fact seen in the Sausalito '92 Zinfandel itself, at $24. Down the street, at Nora's Bistro, the same spicy, peppery, satisfying wine goes for $18.

Details

* WHAT: The Garden Terrace Restaurant.

* WHERE: 1002 E. Ojai Ave., Ojai, 646-1133.

* WHEN: Breakfast and lunch from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.; coffee and desserts from 3 to 5 p.m.; dinner from 5 to 9 p.m. daily.

* FYI: Visa, Mastercard, Discover. Dinner for two, food only: $25-$50.

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