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Mary's Secret Garden: for the vegan with panache

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VENTURA'S favorite son, Erle Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason mystery books, never wrote about a meal that didn't begin with a martini and include a steak and baked potato, but times have changed since his fictional hero's mid-century heyday. Today's detectives -- fictional or otherwise -- can't determine a car's owner by peeking at the registration on the steering wheel column the way Mason could, and they most likely can't pack away the red meat the way he did.


FOR THE RECORD:
Ventura chef: An Aug. 29 Food section review of Mary's Secret Garden restaurant in Ventura misspelled chef-owner Mary Grayr's last name as Gryr. —


If Mason were around today, he'd have tattoos and be a vegan.

As such, he'd have a number of options for a quick, casual vegetarian bite in downtown Ventura, but for one of those teasingly almost-romantic dinners with his secretary, Della Street, the place I'd steer him to is the year-old Mary's Secret Garden, a mint-green converted cottage on the edge of Plaza Park (home of Ventura's majestic 1874 Moreton Bay fig tree).

From one of the handful of tables on the sidewalk in front of Mary's, you can look out over that park, but the charm of the place is best experienced inside, where a sense of occasion so often missing from usually workaday vegetarian restaurants is cultivated by the chef and staff.

It's a date-worthy place, where the young and/or the health-conscious can murmur and hold hands across a green woven place mat and sip organic wine in the soft candlelight. Sophisticated first courses, impressively presented entrees and over-the-top celebratory desserts -- they're all here, albeit in vegan and/or raw form.

It doesn't take the interrogatory skills of Perry Mason to determine that there's a real Mary -- you can find chef-owner Mary Gryr in the kitchen whenever the restaurant's open (which is why, she says, it's only open five days a week). The smart, appealing menu, which is vegan with some raw-food entrees, focuses on superb organic produce and classic ethnic dishes that naturally lend themselves to vegetarian preparation. Ingredients are almost all organic, and Gryr makes some items, such as nut cheeses, in-house. Raw foods are really raw (imported cashews, for example, that have never been steamed to remove the skins are a recent addition to the pantry). Presentation is careful but not pretentious, with handsome green dishware and artfully garnished plates.

Start with fresh Thai spring rolls, a version of Vietnamese rice-paper wrapped summer rolls and a natural in this context. They're superb, almost frighteningly fresh (will these vegetables jump up on the plate and start talking?), made with smoked tofu that adds a depth of flavor and served with a creamy peanut sauce. A delicate and unusual version of a cut Japanese nori-wrapped vegetable roll is good too: rich avocado, crunchy cucumber matchsticks and enoki inside; a sprightly ginger-ponzu sauce is for dipping.

Soft, fluffy hummus, available as an appetizer and as part of a Middle East platter, is not at all traditional, brightened with chopped herbs and served with grilled pita bread.

Service is attentive and sensitive; servers adjust the pace of the meal to the group, taking orders for appetizers, then returning to talk entrees if there's no hurry and never hovering to clear away a course until the table is ready to proceed. One of our party, a twentysomething naturalist and smoothie lover, was so caught up in the possibilities on offer (berries, banana, house-made almond milk and agave nectar? Cacao, bananas, dates, coconut and coconut milk?) that he delayed ordering what would have been his aperitif until appetizers had arrived. Still, the server managed to bring it to him at a natural point in the service, seamlessly allowing the meal to proceed at just the right pace.

Salads highlight remarkable produce: dark, crisp parsley, tender-crisp asparagus, beautiful lettuces. Among the quartet of cooked entrees, yellow curry stew and tomato-basil linguine are outstanding. The stew's a more generous portion than a hungry surfer can finish at a sitting, chock-full of kabocha squash, carrots and potatoes with steamed brown rice. The pasta is a delicious, hearty and garlicky dish with a light pesto-wine sauce and a rich, earthy flavor from the topping of sautéed mushrooms and pine nuts.

Raw-food fans can choose from salads, sandwich variations made as lettuce wraps and several creative raw entrees, all of which offer light and appealing flavors for the curious omnivore. "Tacos" of seasoned mushrooms stuffed in a cabbage leaf with pico de gallo, avocado and cilantro are spicy and balanced. It's really a well-conceived dish. Other choices include "lasagna" and "rawviolis" made with jicama sheets and almond cheese.

Dramatic endingA

SMALL selection of organic wines and beers augments some delightful nonalcoholic drinks including a tangy house-made ginger ale. The memorable end of the meal at Mary's is as dramatic and satisfying as any Perry Mason courtroom windup. Apple pie is a cunningly textured assemblage of spiced fruit, date-pecan crust, cashew cream and raspberry sauce. Coconut jasmine-rice pudding is a refined, ethereal version with a texture like a smooth panna cotta. The secret sundae is a dessert to share at any stage of a love affair: icy, cool and light soy ice cream layered in a parfait glass with warm banana rum sauce, toasted cashews, coconut and chocolate sauce.

But the best dessert is rumored to be the chocolate mint cake. Is it really? I can't say; whenever I've been there, the kitchen had already run out of the four-layer vegan chocolate cake with chocolate chips and white mint chocolate frosting. One server confided that some of her regulars call ahead and reserve a piece when they reserve their table, just to be sure.

susan.latempa@latimes.com

Mary's Secret Garden

Location: 100 S. Fir St., Ventura; (805) 641-3663.

Price: Appetizers, $5 to $12; sandwiches, $9.50 to $12.50; entrees, $11 to $13; smoothies and desserts, $5 to $9.

Best dishes: Fresh Thai spring rolls, cacao-banana-coconut smoothie, tomato-basil linguine, Thai yellow curry stew, coconut jasmine rice pudding, raw apple pie, "secret sundae."

Details: Open for lunch 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, for lunch and dinner 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Beer and wine. Street parking. MC, VISA.

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