- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- PLATESCAPE : Do you look at the view or down at your food? With dishes like these at Ventana Grill, it may be hard to decide.
Walking up to Ventana for the first time, I asked an older couple leaving the eatery if they liked the food. “Oh yes,” the man said. “I really enjoyed the clam chowder and the fish and chips.” His wife agreed: “The chicken Caesar salad was very nice.” That seemed a good omen, and I decided to order his choices since I love those dishes. It was an early dinner, so my husband Dan and I were immediately seated. I liked the fact that we were quickly served a complimentary basket of freshly made flour and corn tortillas, a plate with three housemade salsas, and a bowl of cinnamon butter.
A lovely touch, the warm tortillas tasted great with each one of the delightful, housemade salsas. I didn’t like the cinnamon-butter because I don’t like sweet dishes before savory ones. During a later interview, chef Ricardo Ortega agreed with me, then chuckled, explaining: “But the kids love it.” And this is indeed a family-friendly restaurant.
The clam chowder, thicker than I usually prefer, was quite delicious ($4 cup/$8 bowl). Every spoonful provided bits of tender clams. The thickly crusted Alaskan halibut, coated with Dos Equis tempura batter, is served with crispy potato wedges, two traditional sauces, and greens dressed in chamoy vinaigrette ($15). But I preferred Dan’s tasty order of sesame-cilantro-encrusted yellow fin tuna with tequila-mango vinaigrette ($24).
The dining areas were completely redecorated, floor to ceiling. The old booths in the back are gone, as is the dismal gray coating on the oceanside windows. The oceanside booths were reupholstered, and new towering driftwood columns are hung with exotic succulents. The bar and dining rooms are contemporary and clean, with gorgeous sandstone tiling and rosewood furniture. It was designed by Celadon House of Santa Barbara. Co-owner Kelli Thornton explained: “We believe in natural materials and clean lines; everything we use is reforested.”
Most of it imported from Indonesia, the tropical woods are stunning.
“We were striving for a resort feel,” she explained, “and wanted to create a place that brought your blood pressure down.”
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
Our next visit was even better. Dan ordered the poblano steamed clams ($13), and I was skeptical. At first bite, I was hooked; the tender clams and mushrooms were wonderful in the chipotle white wine broth with strips of freshly roasted poblano chiles. With each bite, I liked it even more. Dan ordered halibut tacos with orange jicama slaw, red radishes, and trés salsas ($17). It was perfectly cooked and delicious. The Ventana Grill chopped salad provided a perfect medley of chicken, romaine, granny smith apples, Roma tomatoes, roasted poblanos, corn, red onion, cotija, and crispy tortilla strips dressed with cumin Dijon vinaigrette ($13).
When I met with Ortega for the interview, he spoke of his parent’s love of good food, which influenced him to become a chef. A passionate cook, he worked his way up the ladder to earn the title of chef. For the last nine years, he’s been cooking at the Custom House in Avila Beach. Before that, he was sous chef to the extraordinary chef Frank Mendoza at 7 Hands on Higuera in SLO. Mendoza took dining to amazing new heights. Sadly, the expense of creating such highly specialized dishes was the restaurant’s undoing. “Frank taught me everything about managing the kitchen, from the computers to menu planning,” Ortega recalled. Today, Ortega is executive chef at both the Custom House and Ventana Grill.
“People come in and tell us, ‘We’ve never seen anything like this place anywhere, and we dine out all the time,’” said Darren Smith, CEO and co-owner of Compass Health, Inc. A healthcare provider of assisted living and acute rehab facilities, it expanded its ownership to include restaurants. Smith takes their restaurants as seriously as he does their healthcare communities: “We wanted a menu that felt fresh and had a healthful content,” he explained. “We looked around at other restaurants and found our price point on dishes is comparable in the area.”
It took nine months to remodel the restaurant, and they opened quietly.
The bar features “Sunset Hour” Monday through Friday from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Drinks and a list of appetizers are reduced in price. I can’t wait to try the carne asada nachos ($8) and the sweet chipotle chili wings ($6). Ortega also brings in weekly specials like Alaskan wild salmon that he paired with jicama-watermelon salsa.
“I love freshness and color, and I want to create salsas you aren’t going to find anywhere else,” he said of their coastal fusion cuisine.
Smith credits the excellent menu entirely to Ortega, whom he said is highly respected by his cooking team for his work ethics. But Ortega doesn’t consider the menu finished by any means: “I’m always searching for dishes that are offbeat and different. I want to keep the menu fresh for our customers.”
You can reach New Times’ Cuisine columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org.