How three new ventures—
Home restaurant, Cultura – comida y bebida
and Revival Ice Cream — are helping
reshape our local food culture
Top Left: Ron Mendoza, Revival Ice Cream; Top Right: Brad Briske, Home;
Bottom: Kyle Odell, Matt Glazer, Michelle Estigoy, Michael Marcy,
Sarah Kabat-Marcy and John Cox, outside Cultura
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHELLE MAGDALENA
Is fine dining dying—or even dead?
This question has been bandied about for years as restaurant costs have risen and American culture has become more casual. After all, “fine dining” refers at least as much to a highly formal, labor-intensive and solicitous manner of service as it does to food prepared with the finest ingredients and techniques. Many of the country’s most renowned chefs have been opening more casual eateries for some time now, and an increasing number of talented chefs leaving fancy places have chosen to join or start less formal, more playful and inexpensive places. In our own Monterey Bay area, one of the first and most notable examples of this movement was Santa Cruz chef Kendra Baker’s departure from David Kinch’s three-Michelin-star Manresa to start an inventive, community-minded artisanal ice cream enterprise, The Penny Ice Creamery, with business partner Zach Davis in 2010.
The Penny rocked the local food world, and Baker and Davis quickly followed with The Picnic Basket, a casual sandwich and salad place that gave nearby Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk goers profoundly delicious quick-service food, made with seasonal ingredients sourced from local farms and food artisans.
The phenomenon has gathered steam in the last five years, with Baker and Davis opening their rustic-California restaurant, Assembly, and Emanuele Bartolini, a former senior manager at New York’s fine dining icon, La Posta, and his wife, Anna, starting La Balena, a Carmel restaurant that offers attentive service and exceptional Tuscan food in a more casual setting, and its own more informal sibling, Il Grillo. Also in Carmel, Kyle Odell, an alum of Oakland’s Commis and Parallel 37 in San Francisco, employed his fine dining chops at Carmel Belle before moving on to Cultura’s bar. And in Monterey, James Anderson has used his own high-end restaurant experience to make the Poke Lab something entirely elevated from most conceptions of takeout fare.
In Santa Cruz, standout recent examples include Earthbelly, a counter-service restaurant where owners Chad Greer and Tammy Ogletree practice the same scrupulous commitment to organic, non-GMO farm-to-table cuisine as they did with their fine dining spot in the Hudson Valley, Beso (see story in EMB Fall 2016), and Burn Hot Sauce, the cult condiment company with which Amanda Pargh is putting her experience at Lucques and Ad Hoc to imaginative use (see story in EMB Winter 2016).
On the flip side, local exceptions to this trend are rare—in recent times only one chef, Cori Goudge-Ayer, chose to start a new restaurant following the fine dining model. Her venture, Persephone, opened last August in Aptos.
Taken together, all this exodus from the local fine dining world might suggest that the sector is truly on the ropes, at least in our area. But in fact, the places the chef-entrepreneurs left behind are still going strong. Moreover, one could argue that those fine dining restaurants also play a special role as an important training ground for the talented young chefs who are transforming our local food scene and creating a whole new form of dining.
Nowhere is this more evident than at three of our area’s most recently opened and vibrant new food ventures—Revival Ice Cream, Cultura – comida y bebida and Home. Each is driven by chefs (and one sommelier) with the same passion to produce the best food possible of any fine dining establishment, but they’ve taken what they learned to make their food more accessible. And each enterprise is a deeply personal expression of the chefs who have opened them.
ELEVATED ICE CREAM
One of the latest is Revival Ice Cream, the wildly creative, seasonal, local artisanal ice cream business started in Monterey this past October by chef Ron Mendoza, formerly the executive pastry chef at Aubergine at L’Auberge in Carmel.
But Mendoza didn’t just open an ice cream shop. He has poured all the technique and attention to sourcing that he developed during a 17-year career at some of California’s finest restaurants—Napa’s French Laundry, Los Angeles’ Patina and Aubergine—into creating very, very special ice creams.
“We used to think casual food was cheap and dirty and junky and unhealthy and all those things,” says Mendoza, but now, he points out, chefs like him are applying accomplished technique and quality ingredients to make foods that are more accessible without being cheap.
“Ultimately, there is nothing I’m doing here that I wouldn’t do in a fine dining restaurant,” Mendoza says of the airy, modern space on downtown Alvarado Street where he and his staff both make and serve their ice creams.
And by selling his scoops for $3 for a single and $4 for a double— and wholesale pints and ice cream bars at other outlets like Earthbound Farm’s Farm Stand—Mendoza is able to share his ice cream with many, many more people than he ever could before.
Due to a California law that requires ice cream makers to use a pasteurized ice cream base or become certified to pasteurize their own, most small-scale ice cream producers use a premade base. But Revival, like e Penny Ice Creamery, has its own pasteurizing operation so Mendoza can tailor the dairy, eggs or vegan alternatives that go into his ice cream to balance whatever flavor he is dreaming up.
All ingredients are organic when possible, and Mendoza gives his flavors a sense of place with local, seasonal ingredients like fruit, vegetables and herbs from the Oldtown Farmers’ Market that sets up outside Revival’s door on Tuesday afternoons.
Mendoza also forages—an example is the eucalyptus leaves he collects for his gooey and unusual riff on mint chocolate chip called Mint, Eucalyptus and Fudge—and he includes products from other local food artisans, like the bee pollen, honeycomb and honey from Carmel Honey Co. that go into his light, honey-forward Bee’s Knees flavor. Just down the street from the Poke Lab, which opened last year, Mendoza sees Revival as part of the evolution of local food culture, and says he’d like to see other specialized food artisans move in, like bread bakers and a butcher.
“Ultimately, there is
nothing I’m doing here
that I wouldn’t do in a fine
TASTE OF HOME
When you walk in the door of the bungalow that houses Home restaurant in Soquel, one of the first things you see is the mounted head of a javelina, a wild desert pig related to the boar.
It seems especially fitting if you know that Briske—a former vegan whose first job out of New York’s Natural Gourmet Institute culinary program was at the San Francisco bastion of veganism, Millennium— is now better known for breaking down his own beasts for his signature whole-animal cuisine.
But the more telling story behind the taxidermy is that the pig was shot at close range with a bow and arrow by his own sister: Home is nothing if not a home for his family, renovated and staffed with the many hands of his extended tribe and intended to feel homey for his beloved community of Santa Cruz as well. e resulting décor and food are deeply personal expressions of Briske and his wife Linda’s tastes, and after turns at Main Street Garden, Gabriella Café, La Balena and Il Grillo, Briske says he wants Home to be his place for the next 30 years. “It feels great, it’s kind of crazy,” Briske says of the experience of owning and running his own restaurant.
As of press time for this issue, Home had been open just three months, not long enough for Briske to get to the desired point of ease when he is “sharing a brain” with his sous chefs, as he puts it. But all of the hard work—especially that of Briske, his wife, Linda Ritten, and his inlaws, Sanra Ritten and chef Diego Felix, who came from Argentina to help open Home—was winning an ecstatic reception from guests.
“We’re definitely busier than we were anticipating,” he says, noting that the restaurant, even during the usual January doldrums in little Soquel, was doing covers of 70 to 80 on weekend nights when it just had been expecting 45 to 55, and weeknight business of 50 when he had been expecting just 35.
Briske’s aim with the front of the house has been to offer the same excellent service that he saw in action at La Balena, but his vision for Home’s food is to go both more fancy and more casual.
On the fancy side, Briske has already launched a $75 tasting menu offered at 7pm at a communal table with seven courses plated in inventive ways plus a family-style plate of oysters and housemade charcuterie and dessert.
On the more casual side, the plan is to eventually offer inexpensive takeout lunches of rustic sandwiches made with ingredients like beef tongue and osso bucco, and an early bird dinner.
Meantime, lovers of the handmade pastas and deeply flavorful slow-cooked meats that La Balena has become renowned for will find the same sorts of items on the menu at Home, but with twists, as Briske now has a free hand to use ingredients that aren’t native to Tuscany. So in his own restaurant, Briske’s popular fried chicken, for example, is laced with lemongrass; his octopus is paired with sauces like anchovy miso aioli and arugula salsa verde; and the salads contain avocados. (Prices for the pastas on a winter menu ran $19 to $20; most meat and fish entrées ranged from $21 to $27.)
Come summer, Briske plans to open the front and back patios, as well as an outdoor cooking station equipped with an existing pizza oven and a new open-fire grill. Some of the herbs, greens and fruits will come from a charming on-site organic vegetable garden established during the location’s long run as eo’s in the 1980s.
Once the restaurant is fully in its groove, Briske plans to sink his prodigious energy into new projects that include a food truck, a deli and a farm.
Clockwise from upper right, Diego Felix, Linda Ritten and Brad Briske at Home,
cocktails at Cultura, ice cream at Revival and Halibut Ceviche at Cultura
When you call Cultura – comida y bebida to make a reservation, the first thing the reservationist asks is if you have any food allergies that the restaurant can accommodate. While such solicitous attention to guest needs is not so common among local restaurant hostesses, it’s not surprising to get the question from Cultura if you know that the business partners behind it, Sarah Kabat-Marcy and John Cox, and executive chef Michelle Estigoy all worked together and became friends at Sierra Mar, the fine dining restaurant at Big Sur’s exclusive Post Ranch Inn.
But when you walk in the door of this warm, Oaxaca-inspired farm-to-table restaurant and bar in downtown Carmel, it’s immediately apparent that the collaborators have created something much less formal and entirely unique to our area. In a reference to the chef-driven cocktail program centered on artisanal mezcal, a series of portraits of women personifying the distinct characteristics of various agave plants line a wall of the dining room. Atmospheric black and white photos hang in the spacious bar of the former Jack London and colorfully decorated cow skulls, other artifacts from nature and quirky old dolls are scattered throughout the restaurant, giving it a whimsical, mysterious, yet still elegant feel.
As in the case of Home, the menu goes both high and low, with rich, complex flavors and fine technique tying it all together: At the most affordable end, deeply flavorful street tacos prepared with housemade tortillas and changing fillings such as chicken tinga, smoked trout, chorizo, duck, tongue and carnitas are on the dinner menu for $4 apiece and the late night bar menu for just $2 apiece. At the other end of the spectrum, under the heading of Rico Suave, a menu in January offered Monterey Red Abalone, relleno style, for $45 and a 14 oz. Wagyu Eye of Ribeye for a lofty $95.
The core of the menu, the Especialidades in the middle range, start at $19 and are mostly under $25, including the inspired and addictive Cultura Mole, a smoked and braised pork shoulder dish flavored with sesame and sour orange and served with squash blossom tortillas. For the Cultura team, being able to relax, take risks and let their creativity loose to experiment in creating new dishes like this has been one of the greatest pleasures of their new venture.
“Here it’s a little bit more approachable but still all the love goes in,” Estigoy says, comparing her role to her last as executive sous chef at Sierra Mar. “I can just let my mind go and play around. It’s like playing every day.”
“I think that’s it. That is why we moved in this direction,” says Kabat-Marcy, who was most recently a sommelier and cellar manager at Sierra Mar, “so that we would have the opportunity to be more playful and expressive and not really have a strict guideline of rules that we have to play by.”
Still, the restaurant’s standards for itself are extremely high.
The ingredients are not just organic and local when possible, for example, but the proprietors have commissioned an organic farmer of Oaxacan descent in San Juan Bautista to grown Oaxacan heirloom vegetables, and the restaurant is even attempting to raise its own crickets for the authentically Mexican bar snacks.
At the bar and out around the fire pits on the patio, the inventive and well-balanced specialty cocktails, created by a team that includes chefs Matt Glazer and Kyle Odell, are made with small-batch, fairtrade, single-origin mezcal and other fine spirits. Some especially tasty mezcal drinks over the winter included the Pina Aplastada (pineapple smash) in which lime and mint keep the pineapple juice from being overly sweet, and the savory Conejo Bebida (rabbit drink) flavored with carrot juice, orange, ginger, tarragon and Meletti Amaro. Six months in, Cultura’s formula has been a huge success: Cox said in January that the restaurant was doing covers of as many as 150 on weekends and seeing locals return for dinner two and three times a week. Industry folks have been coming back for the late night menu as often as three and four times a week, he added.
THE FUTURE IS NOW
In light of these dynamic and vibrant new fine-casual success stories, one might wonder where fine dining fits into the future of our changing restaurant scene.
Cultura’s Cox, who was most recently executive chef at Sierra Mar, said he believes that as labor costs continue to go up, there will be a contraction.
“We’re still going to have fine dining restaurants, but they will be more and more expensive, and there will be less and less of them.” Where Cox expects to see growth is in more casual enterprises. “You really have to create systems to offer a quality product at an affordable price,” Cox says.
Still, the chefs and restaurateurs interviewed for this story say they see a continued role for fine dining and would not want to see it go away.
“The idea of doing something that’s casual in concept but still focused on quality ingredients and good technique is what’s driving what we’re seeing now,” says Revival’s Mendoza.
“The thing is that you usually learn those things in fine dining,” Mendoza adds. “That’s why when I started cooking, I always wanted to work in fine dining because I knew I would get the best ingredients and I would learn the most.”
For her part, Cultura’s Kabat-Marcy said she hopes fine dining will always be around as a choice for diners who can make it. But for now, she’s happy to have a free hand to be more improvisational.
“We’re like kids in a candy shop,” she says.
Revival Ice Cream
463 Alvarado St., Monterey
3101 N. Main St., Soquel
Cultura – comida y bebida
Su Vecino Court between 5th and 6th avenues, Carmel
Mendoza’s Revival Bouquet
Briske’s Whiskey Thief Demi-glace
Estigoy’s Chanterelle Sope
“We’re still going to have
fine dining restaurants, but
they will be more and more
expensive, and there will
be less and less of them.”