Ventura County's culinary community was busy in 1997--hosting wine dinners, winning culinary awards and opening such establishments as 71 Palm, the Anacapa Bread Co. and 2087--An American Bistro.
From the looks of it, the hectic schedule of activities will continue into 1998. Following is just a nibble of what the new year has to offer at a selection of local restaurants.
With the arrival six months ago of food and beverage director Charles Bayer, Capistrano's restaurant in Oxnard began to make some subtle changes in its cuisine. Those changes will become obvious in the coming year.
"Chuck is really a forward-thinking guy. He's given me a lot of freedom in the kitchen, a lot of freedom in creativity," said Robert Garcia, the restaurant's executive chef.
"He is into new cuisine, new presentation of cuisine," Garcia said. "And that's pretty much where we're heading--more of a gourmet, elegant presentation."
Garcia is experimenting with different dishes for a new menu he intends to introduce sometime in February. He said gourmands can expect preparations similar to those they've seen in culinary magazines.
"It won't just be rice and potatoes," he said. "You'll see couscous, orzo, risotto, different kinds of basmati [rice]. I've got a list of items I'm playing with."
The dessert list also will show off Garcia's gourmet touch. He's already preparing a variety of creme brulee (with mangoes, fresh berries and figs) and he plans to make his own chocolate velvet cake on site in coming months.
Of course, with the more upscale menu, Garcia said, will come some slightly more upscale prices.
"We continue to keep cost-effective pricing--we want to keep our customers," Garcia said. "But at the same time, you can't get a decent product at bargain prices."
* Capistrano's, at the Embassy Suites Mandalay Beach Resort, 2101 Mandalay Beach Road, Oxnard. (805) 984-2500.
Longtime restaurateur Matt Widmer and his business partners opened Winchesters Grill & Saloon in Ventura last spring with plans to first serve dinner, and then down the road offer lunch. The restaurant's regularly packed house has done nothing to change their minds.
Beginning in March, Winchesters will serve lunch from about 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. The menu will feature the restaurant's ostrich and buffalo burgers, as well as a new selection of salads, sandwiches and other light fare.
"Nothing over $7," Widmer said.
At the same time, the restaurant owners intend to open a new patio and outdoor smoking area for their guests. The additions, Widmer said, are planned to coincide with the opening of the 10-screen cinema under construction half a block away.
* Winchesters, 632 E. Main St., Ventura. (805) 653-7446.
For Cafe Provencal owners Florence and Serge Bonet, much of the focus of the new year will be on Alexandra and Fusion. Alexandra is the couple's newborn daughter; Fusion is the new style of cuisine that has captured the taste buds of France's culinary world.
"With the birth of our baby, it gives us a different perspective," Florence Bonet said. "We want to have new things everywhere, a fresh start everywhere."
At the Thousand Oaks restaurant, that will mean incorporating Fusion style--a melding of traditional French cuisine with French Polynesian flavoring.
"It's a mix of spices and honey or other sweet things, a trend that's raging in France," Bonet said.
Cafe Provencal has already added a taste of Fusion to its menu in the form of duck and pork dishes prepared with three Polynesian spices and honey.
* Cafe Provencal, 2310 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. (805) 496-7121.
Out with the poor sellers, in with the good sellers.
That is the 1998 business philosophy for Tony Fiumerodo, owner of Bella Luna Italian Restaurant in Newbury Park.
Among the items on the new menu are gnocchi, which had only been served as a special; fusilli prepared with sun-dried tomatoes, olive oil, grilled chicken and artichoke hearts; fusilli with creamy mascarpone cheese, mushrooms, grilled chicken and spinach; and veal saltimbocca (veal scaloppine with a thin slice of ham and fresh sage in a demi-glace with white wine).
To wash down the new dishes, Fiumerodo also has expanded his wine list.
* Bella Luna, at 579-A Ventu Park Road, Newbury Park. (805) 499-6767.