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Foodies Love Ojai - Small Town Gives Way To Inspiring Chefs And Rich Culinary Scene

In Ojai, just a short jaunt from Los Angeles, foodies and tourists are discovering a small city rich in culinary offerings. Orchards, ranches, family-run farms and boutique wineries, scattered throughout Ojai Valley, set the stage for freshness. Just 12 miles inland from the California coast, Ojai’s mild Mediterranean climate, makes it ideal for growing avocados, olives, lemons, oranges, tangerines, nuts, grapes, herbs and a variety of organic vegetables.

One-of-a-kind bistros and restaurants are run by passionate chefs who infuse locally-sourced and fresh ingredients into their menus. Chef Susan Coulter, executive chef and co-owner at Feast Bistro in the center of town, charms guests with her many inspired creations. Now in its sixth year, Feast Bistro is a cozy bistro-style environment that focuses on fresh ingredients. The open kitchen creates a home-like atmosphere adding to the dining experience. Chef Coulter changes the menu several times a year, but the not-to-be-missed signature dishes available year-round are the pulled pork sandwich (offered at lunch), steamers, braised pork, and pommes frites.

“Most people like variety,” stated Coulter. “So, we take the best from many cuisines around the world and put our own twist on it.” A veteran in the culinary industry, Chef Coulter celebrates 27 years of professional cooking in 2012. Before coming to California, she worked in Chicago for such notable chefs as Tony Mantuano of Spiagga and Charlie Trotter of Charlie Trotters. She also spent time in Baltimore where she worked with Nancy Longo, Chef and Owner of the Pierpont Restaurant. While vacationing in southern California, Coulter and Feast’s co-owner Beryl Schwartz discovered Ojai and knew they had found the right spot to open their restaurant. Wanting to make Feast Bistro inviting and comfortable, they filled the bistro with antiques and brightly painted walls. The open kitchen concept was developed to provide intimacy with their patrons.

At the five-star Ojai Valley Inn & Spa resort, Executive Chef Chad Minton, has “cooked” his way up and down the Pacific Coast from San Francisco to Vancouver to Los Angeles for the past 20 years while climbing the culinary ladder. Before landing in Ojai, he was the only cook in the history of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company to work his way up from apprentice to executive chef.

Minton says he brings a ‘sophisticated, not complicated’ culinary style to the resort, and his goal is to leave a mark on the long and fascinating history of the Inn while providing some interesting creations. Several dishes have now become ‘signature’ items at the four on-site eating establishments. Whether it’s the 100% all-beef foot long hot dog on a sea-salt brioche bun in Jimmy’s Pub, the McGrath Family Farms baby beets, cashew & blue cheese bread in Spa Ojai’s Café Verde, or the popular heirloom tomatoes & basil salad in the Oak Grill, Chef Minton is committed to creating a memorable dining experience for his guests. He and his team use organic produce grown on the premises from the herb garden that produces such flavorful herbs such as rosemary, sage and lavender.

His beef selections come from the Watkins Cattle Company, a natural pasture in the Ojai Valley, and the seafood is in compliance with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sea Food Watch sustainable seafood program. The Inn’s signature restaurant, Maravilla, provides perfectly executed comfort foods made with the very best local & sustainable ingredients, served in a warm, yet elegant dining room.

Bringing the flavors of Provence to Ojai, Chef Suzanne Roll of Suzanne’s Cuisine is a talented chef with a true love and understanding for food. Working alongside her daughter, Sandra Moore, Chef Roll uses natural flavors in her Provence-inspired dishes – tomatoes, garlic, olives and olive oil. The menu also reflects other influences in her life as well – a little Asian, a bit of Mexican and some interesting spices that she picks up at an Indian market. Chef Roll is quite passionate about quality and frequently travels to three farmers markets and the produce market to hand-select the produce, which is 90% organic.

The menu at Suzanne’s is quite varied, with the Miso Marinated Butterfish and Chimichurri Grilled Rib Eye as two of the favorite requests. Having lived in France for a good portion of their lives, and being of Italian-American descent, they coined their culinary style as ‘contemporary European’ -- meaning that the roots are in France and Italy, but other flavors and elements are infused. When dining at Suzanne’s, guests can expect a warm welcome and a staff who truly cares about their experience.

Recently entering Ojai’s culinary scene is the “Eating Ojai” Food Tour. On the tour, guests walk through downtown Ojai stopping at six different shops and restaurants for tastings and conversations with many of the shop owners and local chefs. The culinary adventure ranges from beer, baked goods, Mexican food, coffee and locally-made artisanal fares. Tours are offered once or twice a month, with more planned for the spring. Upcoming tour dates are February 11, February 25, March 24 and April 21, 2012. Ticket prices are $59 per person, and $49 for two or more. Price includes tastings at the six different locations, sales tax and tip. Tours begin a 10:30 a.m. and run approximately to 2:30 p.m. Advanced reservations required.

Another culinary experience can be found at the Ojai Culinary School at the Lavender Inn, providing visitors with hands-on and demonstration cooking classes featuring visiting chefs and local artisanal cooks. Themed classes and chefs are rotated throughout the year. Farm and ranch tours are also popular in Ojai. The Asquith Farm, home to the Ojai Olive Oil Company, harvests olives on property and visitors can take tours and purchase fresh olive oil in many different flavors. Friend’s Ranch offers farm tours in spring where visitors can pick the pixies right off the tree. In summer, New Oak Ranch provides ‘U-Pick Lavender’ during the summer for visitors to grab a bundle of the aromatic blossoms for just $5.

Emerging onto the wine scene, Ojai has three distinct wineries and is part of the Ventura County Wine Trail that runs from Malibu up to Ojai. Ojai’s Casa Barranca was the first certified organic winery on the Central Coast, and has a tasting run in the center of town. Opened in 2011, The Ojai Vineyard Tasting Room is located in the historic firehouse, producing more than 20 handmade wines. Old Creek Ranch Winery has an extensive repertoire of wines located in a picturesque setting at the gateway to Ojai Valley.

An easy 90-minute drive north of Los Angeles and 50 minutes south of Santa Barbara, Ojai is a convenient destination for regional travelers as well as national and international visitors. The closest airports are in Santa Barbara (45 miles), Burbank (70 miles), and Los Angeles (85 miles). Ojai is just a 20-minute drive from U.S. 101 via California Highway 33. Free, ample parking is available throughout the city. For visitor information, contact the Ojai Visitors Bureau at or (888) OJAI NOW.
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