Bodee’s is back with great taste
Popular Ojai restaurant closed its doors in 1998 but reopened in May
to offer exceptional, fresh food
By Rita Moran
June 23, 2005
Ojai’s Highway 33 is taking a tasty turn for the better with the addition of an adventurous—but not entirely new—restaurant: Bodee’s is back, with an impressive culinary upgrade.
Old-timers may remember Bodee’s Bar, which starting in the late 1940s welcomed travelers with bonhomie and booze as they wended their way to Wheeler Hot Springs.
The original Bodee’s was opened in 1947 by Hiram Imboden Cromer, a physical therapist known as “Doc Bodee,” and by his wife, Anne Cromer, who came to Ojai in 1939 to run the bath house and therapy area at Wheeler.
According to the story told on two pages of the Bodee’s menu, the couple went on to develop Bodee’s Ranch after the birth of their son, Michael, combining steam baths and physical therapy areas with the kitchen and bar.
Bodee’s became a popular way station for locals and visitors to the valley, with clientele ranging from Hollywood types like Rory Calhoun and Zachary Scott to boxers Jack Dempsey and Art Aragon, who trained up the road at Pop Soper’s. (The latter’s name is written in the concrete of the building’s original foundation, now visible through a clear “window” set in the floor.)
The family has never given up on the prospect of running a restaurant in the rustic area, rebuilding after a 1951 fire that claimed the life of Doc Bodee and again when torrential rains left the restaurant mired in mud in 1969. Not until after Anne’s death at age 85 in 1998 did the place sit empty.
Then, in late May, it opened again, this time as a more innovative spot.
Manager Michele Cromer-Bentivolio and executive chef Christopher Watson are key players on the premises. As Anne’s granddaughter, Cromer-Bentivolio brings her family’s colorful history into play, while Watson continues the culinary creativity previously applauded at Nona’s Courtyard Cafe and Table 13 in downtown Ventura.
Watson is young, and his ideas are fresh. So is the food, which makes good use of Ojai’s bounty. Guacamole is whipped up from the fruit of the family ranch. Greens are crisp, veggies varied.
The menu and hours are still in flux: Until things have settled into a routine, it’s a good idea to call ahead to check the hours or even to make reservations. We first visited for brunch service that since has changed to light-lunch items at a later hour.
Bodee’s is a sight to behold. Rounding a bend on Highway 33, we slowed to check the sign before pulling into the neatly marked roadside parking. To the left, nestled among trees, is a spacious deck that seems to grow naturally out of the wooded setting.
It is amply outfitted with space heaters to allay any chill, but we decided on a still-misty morning to head for the warmth of the restaurant’s interior.
We settled into one of the tall, cushioned booths near the flaming fireplace and checked out the menu. I suspect that some of the items we tasted at brunch will reappear among lunch options.
The top of the menu listed a group of salads, each with grilled chicken breast, grilled salmon or duck confit.
I spied an item that Watson had prepared at Nona’s—his barbecue duck confit quesadilla ($10)—and ordered it as our first course because I knew it would be an outstanding dish. It lived up to my expectations, with its tender duck strands blended with a sweet but balanced barbecue sauce, then compressed with a bit of cheese between flour tortillas. The result was crisp on the outside, creamy and full-flavored within. Attractively arranged alongside were dollops of a piquant mango salsa, sour cream and Bodee’s guacamole.
We inquired about the soup of the day, and when we heard “potato celery” we quickly ordered a small bowl. It was everything a soup should be, lightly creamed and full of natural flavor. The soup option at Bodee’s is clearly worth looking into, no matter the time of day.
Lots of Winning Dishes
The rest of the menu consisted of sandwiches and wraps, and we found winners in each category. Tri-tip, offered in a preparation with smoked mozzarella, caramelized onions, lettuce, tomato and chipotle aioli, was one of the best preparations of the popular meat we’ve ever had. The tri-tip was cut into two, three-quarter-inch slices, then grilled to rare and juicy perfection.
Seasonings, either from a marinade or rub, enhanced the meat’s flavor. My friend asked for the meat alone, rather than as a sandwich, so we didn’t get to sample the fixings on the menu. But the beef was so good we didn’t miss them. (Tri-tip was not on the dinner menu when we returned, but other steaks were: rib-eye, a 20-ounce Porterhouse, filet mignon and New York strip.)
Our other main, early-day dish was seared yellowfin tuna wrap ($9.50), a light combination of flaked tuna with tomato, lettuce and slivered cucumber, tied together with a sambal aioli that gave it a subtle Asian kick.
The good experience was reinforced during a return trip for dinner. Our yellowfin tuna entree ($20), with mango salsa, wild rice and snap peas, was delicious.
The chicken breast stuffed with walnuts and Gorgonzola cheese ($17), and served with sweet-pea mashed potatoes and baby carrots, came in a too-die-for lavender port reduction that enhanced the chicken and everything it touched on the plate.
We particularly liked the fun of Bodee’s unusual mashed potatoes, which include smoked tomato and caramelized onion flavorings, along with other creative concoctions.
Our starters were an excellent light salsa and guacamole ($7.50, enough for four) that came with freshly made tortilla chips. Yellowfin tuna tartare ($9) was succulent, with accents of sambal peanut sauce dabbed on the plate. The fried won tons layered with the tuna chunks were cooked beyond the prime crunch stage and proved a bit greasy.
Possibly there was an error in preparation, but we would have been just as happy with only the small chunks of tuna or some other layering element.
For dessert, we couldn’t resist a real touch of Ojai: Pixie tangerine mousse ($6). It came in a pretty tuliplike ice cream dish and was so rich that the two of us couldn’t finish it. The tangerine flavor, reinforced by strands of the fruit’s zest, was extraordinary, but the creamy texture throughout was more than we could handle. Good cups of coffee helped temper the treat.
Bodee’s wine list goes beyond the usual, especially by the bottle. The emphasis is on Central Coast wines, but there are others, from basic to exotic, on the list.
The choice is more limited for wines by the glass. On our first visit we selected glasses of Cold Heaven viognier, which we had enjoyed elsewhere, and of Evolution, a white wine blend by Sokol Blosser of Willamette, Ore.
Both went well with our informal items. On our dinner visit, we shared a bottle of a crisp, 2002 Babcock chardonnay.
The only minor flaw came during our first visit. After we had finished every speck of our quesadilla, leaving both knives and forks a little messy, our server handed them back to us as she took the plates away. Ordinarily I would be stubborn enough to hand them back and ask for a new set, but everything else was so enjoyable that I let it go.
Still, our overall experience promises that the food will continue to be exceptional and the service cheerful and engagingly informal.
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