Spring is the time of year that makes the Ojai valley even more magical than usual. After all, it’s Pixie season! That’s not when mystical beings appear in the orange groves. It’s the annual harvest of the famous Pixie brand seedless tangerines, a huge celebration starting in February.
Farmers in Ojai started growing Pixies in the 1960s as an early season bloomer to add to the multitude of other citrus varieties growing in the valley that ripen throughout the year, all the way into December.
Chasing Pixies through Ojai
So Spring makes Ojai a lovely getaway destination for the sweet smells and juicy flavors of the famous Pixies, and for the host of events, happenings and special menus at local restaurants and bars that the harvest celebrations inspire.
Make your first stop on the Pixie tour the local farmers’ market. Every Sunday you can find fresh Pixies and a veritable cornucopia of other citrus varieties. Who knew there were so many different varieties of these small aromatic sweet juicy little fruits? Go early and you will find the great and good of Ojai’s chefs sniffing out the best produce for the week’s culinary offings. With local produce in abundance, they have plenty to choose from for a fresh seasonal feast.
After a short stint in LA, Italian-born Pietro Biondi and his wife, Julie Hara, took over a long-vacant Ojai premise of the former L’Auberge restaurant and made it their home. With loads of enthusiasm and considerable elbow grease, they brought the dining room to life with a great mix of vintage art and objects, natural leather and linens set against a background of cool dark blue walls. The result is a welcoming and modern room, the perfect setting for your Ojai evening culinary adventure.
If al fresco dining is your taste, Nocciola’s terrace gives you a front row seat to a famous Ojai phenomenon, the “Pink Moment”, a few minutes seen most days when the sunset casts a pink glow across the Topa Topa mountains. The perfect setting for a pre-dinner aperitif while you study the menu.
Pietro’s dishes are truly authentic Italian: handmade pasta, fresh ingredients, creative, seasonal, and often including his beloved hazelnuts — “nocciola” in Italian.
The wine list has a lot of Californian as well as Italian classics. At Nocciola you might feel like you booked a trip to the Tuscan hills rather than Ojai.
Another recent arrival in Ojai, right in the centre of town, is HiHo, a fresh take on traditional hamburger and fries fare. The white walls and red decor with yellow and white industrial lamps and chairs give HiHo a modern classic feel.
With the majority of seating outdoors, a fairly common arrangement for California fast-food dining, a large Olive tree offers shade with seating arranged around it. What’s refreshing about HiHo is that the ingredients are top flight. Meat and produce are fresh and mostly locally sourced. That’s fast food you can feel good about eating!
We ordered the unique “salad in a mason jar”, with a fresh vinaigrette dressing to accompany our burger and fresh hand-cut fries. Adding a nice touch for fast food, HiHo has wine on the menu. And don’t forget to leave room for a yummy homemade pie. HiHo is a great place to get your burger fix.
3 Knead Baking Co.
The perfect bakery and lunch spot, this family run joint should feature prominently on your list of things to do in Ojai.
An architect by training, baker Bobbi Corbin and her children, Rachel, Leah and Jake, made Ojai their home after falling in love with the weather and the amazing produce readily available from local farmers. The contrast to their previous home in Massachusetts was dramatic, and once bitten by the Ojai bug there was no looking back.
Starting out small, Bobbi began selling baked goods at the weekly farmers’ market before finding their permanent home just a few blocks away.
Now you can find Bobbi and family serving breakfast, lunch and a daily array of fresh baked goods. Come hungry because you will have a hard time deciding between Bobbi’s many delicacies. I speak from experience. We came for breakfast and started with one of their lovely egg sandwiches with Arugula salad, and then moved on to a variety of fresh pastries coming out of the oven as we ate.
We will definitely be back for some more time dining on the patio at the Knead Baking Co.
Just a few steps from Knead you will find Azu, the doyenne of Ojai’s food scene. Thirteen years ago Laurel Moore opened her doors and has been cooking fresh and seasonal food ever since. Now joined by her daughter, Elizabeth Haffner, their menu is Mediterranean in style and perfectly suited to Ojai’s moderate climate. Tapas, Paella and other dishes inspired by North African fare are a staple of Azu’s kitchen.
We especially enjoyed the Paella, and make sure you try one of Azu’s craft cocktails before dinner. If you’re lucky, something “Pixie”-based will be on the menu.
Laurel restored the 1910 Ojai building that used to house a baking operation. You can still see the original oven in the middle dining room. The interior is simple and dominated by artwork from some great local and LA-based artists.
Ojai is a great example of what happens when you plant great chefs in a place where great produce is readily available year round: great things! Which makes visiting Ojai for a few days just a bit frustrating: so many great places to eat and so little time. Note to self, better plan a longer trip next time.
Nocciola: Open for dinner from Tuesday to Saturday from 5pm, closed Sunday and Monday. For more details on directions and specials go to; www.nocciolaojai.com
HiHo!: Open from 11:30am to 10:00pm Friday and Saturday and 11:30am to 8:00pm Sunday through Thursday. For more details and directions go to; www.hihoburger.com
Knead Baking Co.: Open Wednesday to Sunday 8am to 2pm, closed Monday and Tuesday, accepting cash or checks only. For more details and directions go to; www.kneadbakingcompany.com
Azu: Open 7 days a week and accepting all major Creditcards. We recommend reservations for dinner on Fridays and Saturday. Breakfast is served from 8:30am to 3:00pm with brunch on weekends from 11:30 to 3:00pm. Lunch from 11:30 to 3:00pm, dinner from 5:30pm to 9:30pm. For more details, specials and directions go to; www.azuojai.com
Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger
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