Oxnard Kosher Dining Is a Sur Thing
“Kosher gourmet” sounds like an oxymoron. And “Oxnard kosher” sounds like the nocturnal ravings of some deluded diner.
Well, get used to it. Gourmet kosher dining has arrived in the Southern California farming community of Oxnard. Paris, London, New York maybe. But Oxnard? Home of big-box grocery chains, Mexican cantinas and strawberry fields forever.
Oxnard’s population is more than 70 percent Latino, which could explain why Tierra Sur, the finest new kosher restaurant on this coast (or almost any other), has decided to open with a decidedly Mediterranean-Spanish flavor, with a large dose of Tuscany thrown in for good measure.
So what’s a nice kosher restaurant doing in a place like this?
Tierra Sur is found deep in the heart of Oxnard’s industrial section, 60 miles north of Los Angeles and a mile and a half off Highway 101, nestled in the confines of the Herzog Winery.
Herzog itself has come a long way. It began making kosher wine back in 1848 in the small Slovakian village of Vrobove, where Philip Herzog crushed grapes for Austro-Hungarian royalty. The winery moved to upstate New York in the early 20th century, and then switched to California, where it is now headquartered and makes surprisingly good wines.
The front of its $13 million state-of-the-art winery houses an elegant tasting room and gift shop, which features high-end table wear, glasses and gifts appropriate to the sophistication of the entire operation.
But the pièce de résistance is Tierra Sur, with its high-ceilinged dining room, flanked by tall windows draped in heavy silks, soft leather dining room chairs pulled up to intimate-sized tables adorned with white table clothes and Reidel crystal stemware. The lighting is subdued, and the color scheme — earth tones of soft olive, gold and browns — highlights the elegant Mediterranean menu.
All this décor is very nice of course, but what about the food?
It more than measures up to the ambience.
Chef Todd Aarons, who grills some of his best creations in an outdoor wood-burning fireplace on the patio, grew up in Los Angeles, graduated from the California Culinary Academy and cut his kitchen teeth at San Francisco’s Zuni Café. Two years later he moved to Savoy in New York’s Soho district. However, his cooking chops and tastes were really formed during a sabbatical in Tuscany, working at four restaurants and imbibing the culture of the Mediterranean table through his pores.
Following his return to California, Aarons went to a post-graduate program at Beringer Vineyard’s School for American Chefs in Sonoma, developing his skills in matching wine with food.
But it was while working for an Italian coffee company in Israel, and developing menus for Italian-Mediterranean restaurants in Netanya and Tel Aviv, that Aarons rediscovered his Jewish roots, fell in love with an Orthodox young woman and eventually became a ba’al teshuvah. Now the dietary laws of kashrut have became the most important element of his cooking.
Aarons commutes to the new restaurant from his home in North Hollywood, where he lives with his wife and three young daughters within the eruv.
Before his Oxnard venture, Aarons ran Mosaica, an upscale glatt kosher French Mediterranean restaurant in New Jersey. But the opportunity to create a restaurant from scratch with the financial support of the Herzog brand was impossible to resist.
So with sous chef Chaim Davids, Tierra Sur opened in late 2005 with kosher supervision by the Orthodox Union. But if you expect pickles, corned beef on rye, or matzah ball soup — fuhgeddaboudit.
Dinner with five-star service — on a par with a dining room in a Four Seasons or Ritz Carlton — changes not just with the seasons but every evening according to the chef’s whim and the availability of the finest and freshest ingredients.
The Mediterranean influence is most visible in the appetizers, many of which come directly from the Spanish tapas or Greek mezes so beloved of the countries bordering that sea.
Platillos were small plates of delicate salt cod beignets; mushrooms a la Greque, cooked in truffle oil (one of the many instances where the absence of butter in the kitchen does nothing but improve the flavors); and a baba ghanoush that is fire roasted in the patio oven. The boudin blanc was a house-made veal-and-chicken sausage with roasted pink lady apples and turnips, and a corn and salt cod chowder was a warm starter on a foggy Oxnard eve.
The dinner entrees, which range in price from $25 to $44, include a farm-raised venison imported from the Mashgichim farm in Goshen, N.Y.; a delicate pan-seared wild Pacific king salmon with braised leeks, root vegetable Spanish tortillas and tarragon salsa; a marjoram and honey roasted chicken leg stuffed with porcini mushroom and chick pea ragout; and a pomegranate-marinated roasted lamb with sautéed broccoli rabe and fresh fava beans. Hannibal Lector eat your heart out. (A more modestly priced menu of soups, salads and sandwiches is available for lunch.)
Desserts like orange almond flan, a warm Mexican chocolate cake with caramel frozen custard and churros y chocolate are simple, inexpensive and delicious.
And, of course, the food can be accompanied by a dazzling selection of kosher wines — by the glass or by the bottle — from winemaker Joe Hurliman.
Already Tierra Sur, which also offers a wine-tasting menu, has been discovered by the Ventura dining cognoscenti and its private dining room has become a popular spot for everything from award dinners held by the Ventura’s Jewish Federation and its various offshoots to dinner celebrations for local corporate heavyweights such as Camarillo’s Amgen.
And the Orthodox are coming from miles around. There is always a fair sprinkling of men in kippot and women in wigs lining up to wash their hands at the small stainless steel sink hidden discreetly in a corner of the dining room.
On the night we went, customers included a couple who had driven up from Hancock Park, a family from the San Fernando Valley headed by a lady who doubles as the Jewish chaplain for the Los Angeles womens prison and a grandmother from Leisure Village in Camarillo who was treating her grandson and his wife from Philadelphia to a wedding anniversary dinner.
And in all cases, their food reviews were a unanimous thumbs up.
Tierra Sur Restaurant is located at 3201 Camino Del Sol in Oxnard. The restaurant is open everyday but Saturday for lunch, and Sunday, Tuesday through Thursday for dinner. For more information, call (805) 983-1560 or visit http://www.jewishjournal.com/local/KosherEats.php for links.
Sally Ogle Davis is a Southern California-based freelance writer. Ivor Davis writes a column for The New York Times Syndicate.