Seeking Calm and Cuisine at the Ojai Valley Inn

An Overnight Escape from Everything, with Culinary Catch at The Farmhouse

Credit: Murphy O Brien

Despite the brevity — or perhaps because of it — the one-night, short-drive getaway can deliver an ample dose of relaxing escapism, providing a quick respite and recharge without requiring much attention to planning or packing. There’s really no reason that you can’t tackle a spur-of-the-moment one-nighter in whatever you happen to be wearing, which is especially true when absconding to full-service resorts like the Ojai Valley Inn, where fluffy, in-room robes cover whatever attire gaps arise. And for the lucky many whose incomes remained steady during the pandemic as extracurricular expenses evaporated, there’s never been more ability or impetus to splurge a little bit, especially if only for one night.

For food-and-drink freaks, the Inn appeals more than ever. In February 2019, the property unveiled The Farmhouse at Ojai, a $20 million epicurean event center that’s since attracted top chefs from around California and beyond to strut their stuff in front of fascinated, high-paying guests. Full of both indoor and outdoor spaces for mingling and dining — though even the high-ceilinged interiors feel al fresco — the center features a massive open kitchen with large overhead screens to watch chefs cook, winemakers pour, and everyone tell their stories.

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This past February, when COVID-19 still felt very much like somewhere else’s problem, my wife and I were invited to spend the night at the Inn in order to fully enjoy a Farmhouse dinner. Our evening was called “A Taste of Baja” and showcased five chefs from Valle de Guadalupe, which has long been Mexico’s primary wine-growing region but became a darling of culinary culture over the past decade.

The affair began with tinga empanadas, ceviche tartelettes, and elote bites as the 70 or so guests crowded around the outdoor bar, where free-flowing tequila drinks offered a chance to extract extra value for those who forked over $375 each to attend. Once seated at a handful of long, communal tables inside, our attention turned to the screens, the chefs, our plates, and our glasses. Star restaurateur Nancy Silverton of Mozza, who is The Farmhouse’s official ambassador, welcomed the crowd, a stylish, mostly Los Angeles–based coterie in which our lower-forties age bracket skewed young.

We sipped eye-opening aligoté by Tresomm between bites of David Castro Hussong’s broccoli with sesame seed; cheersed with Adobe Guadalupe crisp rosé alongside Sheyla Alvarado Acosta’s octopus with brisket confit, red pipian, and blue corn tortillas; and tucked into smoked squab with squash, chorizo powder, and pumpkin-seed vinaigrette by Drew Deckman while enjoying Bruma’s Plan B red blend.

The food was delicious, though I was most excited about the wines, having learned a good deal about the Valle during food-focused trips to Mexico City, Oaxaca, and San Diego. The final meat course was venison with olive mole, apple tepache, and baby turnip by Javier Plascencia, served along the Lechuza cab, which was the only wine I found to be overripe, a common problem for Baja’s hot vineyards. Maribel Aldaco’s chocolate and banana dessert was washed down refreshingly by Bodega Symmetria’s sparkling grenache.

Despite the high ticket price, the service and run-of-show was quite loose and casual in nature — which I prefer when executed well — and our only gripe was that the chef presentations occurred after we’d already wiped each dish clean. No doubt there’s a healthy slice of figuring-it-out still cooking at The Farmhouse, which makes sense — the beautifully ambitious venue is unlike any other experience I’ve ever heard about when it comes to pairing kitchen performances with delicious food on a steady schedule.

An even sharper learning curve was coming, as we all now know. As the pandemic pounced, The Farmhouse went dark, and the Inn was shuttered for a couple months, reopening on June 22. In recent weeks, the lights also went back on at The Farmhouse, which is now hosting al fresco events in which those who purchase tickets together are seated at the same table. (Goodbye communal fun for now.)

There are now 30 events scheduled into December, with multiple options each week, ranging from pasta- and macaron-making classes to whiskey, cheese and wine, vegan cuisine, and how-to-sabre-your-bubbly workshops, all around $100. (There are $85 kids’ classes too.) The bigger-ticket items are the guest chef dinners, including pasta guru Evan Funke of Felix on September 25 ($325), Josiah Citrin on October 24 ($395), and Nancy Silverton doing her Mozza thing on December 4 ($325). For headier fare, there’s a conversation about sustainability and food with Ruth Reichl, Laurie Ochoa, and Jeff Gordinier on December 5 ($275).

The Ojai Omelet at The Oak at the Ojai Valley Inn | Credit: Matt Kettmann

Of course, you’d do just fine on the food front at the Ojai Valley Inn even if The Farmhouse wasn’t part of your plan. Before we checked into our fireplace suite — whose long balcony overlooked the property’s red-tile roofs and sunset-pink Topa Topa Mountains in the distance — we stopped at Jimmy’s Pub for fish tacos and simple yet addictive pub chips, a perfectly salty foil to our Skinny Margarita and Ojai Buck cocktails, the latter a copper-cupped twist on the Moscow Mule. The following morning, we ate breakfast at The Oak, sipping Bloody Marys over avocado toast and the Ojai Omelet, though the crisp roasted potatoes were the star.

We reluctantly departed this dream after less than 20 hours, but we stopped in downtown Ojai before heading home. The farmers’ market bustled, Treasures of Ojai entertained our antique dreams, and church bells rang as I popped into Bart’s Books for a quick literary spree, an altogether carefree morning that gently prepared our return to real life.

Little did we know that just a few weeks later, everything would change. Never has escaping, even for just one night, seemed so vital.

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