Thursday, February 2, 2012
At new Lokal in Carmel Valley Village, Chef Brendan Jones will use things like eggplant and asparagus, artichoke and avocado, quinoa and deer-tail lettuce grown in his mom’s backyard maybe a quarter of a mile down the road. The textured walls are made from an old fence ripped from the restaurant’s patio, where they are planning a garden designed with local gardening-foraging pro Anna Sardinia. The simple-but-beautiful 28-foot bar, meanwhile, is built with raw redwood salvaged from the one and only Monterey Pop Festival stage.
Local allegiance is fundamental to the mouthwatering mythology cooked up by Jones’ father, Michael, as he seduces and repels eaters from across the county with his who-gives-a-fresh-fruit-what-you-think approach to catering, and his feral Cachagua General Store Monday nights. It’s at those one-night-a-week circuses of banjo music, picnic tables, hillbilly dancing and loose chickens where Brendan’s fleet of appetizers – jicama-orange-cumin salads and scallops with cardamom parsnips – amplified the store’s reputation as a remote outpost where fresh flavors and affordable price points trump attentiveness and organization.
“We were doing the local thing 30 years ago,” Michael Jones says. “Unless you are taking an active interest in who’s growing your food, who’s catching it, you have no idea what you’re buying.”
For 31-year-old Brendan Jones, then, local is a birthright. But before he could plate Lokal for his native Carmel Valley, he had to traverse faraway places like Eastern Europe and coastal Spain.
• • •
Brendan Jones’ earliest memories are from the seat of an old 1973 tire truck rumbling along to 18 different stops in a day: the apple guy in Watsonville, the fig lady in Pajaro, the Cheese Shop in Carmel, the guy in Gilroy with all the cherries.
One time Jones senior forgot to swing by his fishermonger. Jones junior spoke.
“Dad, we didn’t go to the Wawf!”
“He sounded just like an Italian,” papa Jones says. “His first complete sentence.”
Little Jones was there in the kitchen of his dad’s restaurant Secrets, peeling prawns and cutting strawberries.
“He was my oyster runner too,” Michael says. “He would be the guy to ladle in butter with the Hollandaise, to pour the olive oil in the aioli.”
A family photo up at CGS reveals a 5-year-old Brendan asleep in the kitchen of his dad’s long-gone Secrets. At 10:20pm. On a cutting board. In the middle of the cooking line.
Longtime locals know what it’s like to feel at least part Italian-by-osmosis around here, and how the dining scene can seem a little sleepy. Brendan Jones thinks they also know what’s missing.
“Carmel’s my hometown,” he says. “It’s got a lot of smart people, a lot of people who like food and wine, but just a few places where you can eat really good food, only it’s really expensive. Everyone deserves better food at a better price.”
The Cachagua General Store earned much of its renown for forward-thinking food at throwback prices. They weren’t just doing baby beet salads and bone marrow a half decade before anyone else, they were doing them for $7.50 each.
“No one in their right mind would give you two big marrow bones for $7.50 or $8,” Michael Jones says. “But people that order it are our friends. Some of the weirdest stuff we sell for cheap, because we want people to try things.”
People will want to try what Brendan has simmering for dinner Thursday through Saturday. Salmon slow-poached in duck fat and served atop squash salad. Squab with chocolate crust, beet sauce and braised endive. Steak tartare with tarragon ice cream. Chicharrones left for 48 hours in the sous vide vaccuum cooker, then wrapped around pork loin and deep fried. Soft-shell crab steamed buns. Crispy pig cheek salad. Ceviche of the day with ancho chili cracklins.
“We’ll go down different roads,” he says, “with an Asian twist, or a Southern one. I like to take an ingredient or two and have it be the highlight.”
Small plates as affordable as $5 will allow for multiple tastes and multiple surprises. Diners will be greeted by breads done in house by Lisa Getline, a former pastry cook with Dory Ford at the Monterey Bay Aquarium who also owned her own Gold Rush Baking locally before pastry cheffing in Willamette Valley wine country.
During the week she’s planning breakfast pastries like cinnamon pullaparts with orange zest glaze, treats like oatmeal apricot cookies and desserts like butterscotch pudding with chantilly cream and bruleed banana.
“Brendan’s approach is really exciting,” she says. “He’s giving me a lot of creative freedom, which is nice. I like talking simple recipes and elevating them.”
A complimentary closer to each dinner will charm: cotton candy with flavors like Earl gray, chamomile and chai. “Clouds of Carmel Valley,” Jones says.
Less experimental stuff will satisfy blue-collar valley goers for breakfast and lunch weekdays and at Sunday brunch. Eggs any way, omelets, Benedicts. Simple but succulent pork sandwiches with arugula plus potatoes cooked in pork fat. A skirt steak sandwich with local mushrooms and grilled onions. Meat and meat-free pasta choices.
“A quick bite and bounce,” Jones says. “For construction workers or whoever.”
Even if that whoever is Matt Damon.
• • •
An unintended pregnancy helped birth the most buzzed-about spot the valley has seen in a generation.
If Brendan Jones doesn’t get his high school girlfriend pregnant right before graduation, her mom doesn’t ask them to move from the Peninsula to a family house in France after the abortion.
If he doesn’t move to France, he doesn’t discover the passion that today has him crafting menus with asiago lollipops and deep-fried aioli cubes.
“At 16,” he says, “I was fucking burnt. Cooking didn’t interest me. There was no creativity. People ate it, that was it.”
But a funny foodie thing happened at restaurant Guethary La table des freres Ibareoure. He saw how technical and precise food could be – they weighed every serving – but it wasn’t predictable, the same old salmon with beurre blanc.
“Before I thought asparagus had to be done a certain way,” he says.
He returned to his dad’s kitchen electrified. But that led to short-circuits: Persimmon panna cotta that collapsed, lemon ice cream that curdled.
“I was trying embarassing stuff,” he says. “It was bad.” But he was back into it, a kid in the kitchen again.
He volunteered at Masters of Food & Wine, caught the eye of Michelin-starred Andoni Luis Aduriz, and jumped at the chance to apprentice at his internationally ranked restaurant in Errenteria, Spain.
He worked feverishly, but it wasn’t quite enough.
“Andoni saw me at the salad station and said, ‘Stop, stop. You gotta do this with your heart. You brain is there, your hands are there. The heart isn’t. You’re not putting yourself into the dish.’”
Jones learned discipline, technique and intuition, but it’s that moment that he marks as most valuable.
“Sometimes there are pieces missing and you don’t know what the hell it is,” he says. “Something clicked. Like, duh.”
But if Jones doesn’t click with Lokal partner/front-of-the-house presence Matthew Zolan, 40, that realization wouldn’t be so potentially tasty.
Jones and Zolan met at Zolan’s M1 bar in Prague, and after later living together, figured they should open another spot.
When they started Osmicka, a hip cement-and-velvet bar, Hollywood followed. Originally, Zolan’s friend from art and film school Gabriel Macht (Suits) recommended his bar to an unknown actor named Colin Farrell, and after Farrell dug the scene he told others in town filming movies. Soon Bruce Willis, Ron Pearlman and Wesley Snipes were hanging at his various hubs. Damon celebrated a birthday at one of Zolan’s bars.
“Zolan knows how to use spaces well, to make things functional but very pleasing visually,” says friend Albert Hughes, one of the Hughes Brothers behind Hollywood hits Menace II Society and The Book of Eli. “He also knew everybody. We called him ‘mayor of Prague.’”
Showbiz links have even earned Zolan gigs on flicks like Transformers III.
“I helped rig stunts, drive cars, get blown up,” he says. “There would be explosions and my job would be ‘Go close to that thing that blows up and run.’”
With the transformation of the former Chatterbox complete – the long bar runs the length of the room, with seating for 40-plus at mostly two – and four-tops, and chalkboard walls awaiting the diagramed culinary equations of Jones – the most important stunt Zolan can pull is helping achieve a Lokal ambiance with a magnetic energy all its own.
• • •
Brendan Jones is not his dad. And that troubles him. It’s a couple of weeks before opening as he stands in the still-a-construction-site Lokal, shakes his head and tells a story.
The previous Monday, with his dad scouting bocadillos in Spain, he ran dinner at Cachagua. It seemed symphonic. Normally by 6pm the menus and soups aren’t even finalized, a half hour later the roadhouse is a whirlwind of noise and chaos and the only way the service staff survives is by gumption and hustle. This time everything was organized and quietly ready by 5:30pm.
“It lost its charm,” he says. “It wasn’t a madhouse. I don’t know how my dad does it. It’s a free-for-all but it works.”
Then Brendan admits he’s not his dad. And that empowers him. “Here it’s going to be more restauranty thing,” he says. “Less drama. We’ll pay attention to people and tables more.”
Paying attention to tables and the tone is where Zolan comes in. The music will be a blend of ambient and old-school – maybe Curtis Mayfield and ’60s and ’70s R&B and soul – and the lighting is easy and welcoming.
The menu will be a devout experiment into flavors that will shift often according to season and Jones’ whim. If Jones and Zolan have their way, the mood in the modest room will determine itself just as organically, aided along by extremely local wines – dismissing Napa options, Jones says the farthest the list will roam is just over the mountains in Santa Lucia Highlands – and several local beers on tap, plus a Prague pilsner.
“It’ll be comfortable enough where they can come every night we’re open and it won’t be boring if they do,” Zolan says. “Brendan will be working with whatever new idea or device and the food will help keep it interesting.”
They won’t try to be CGS, or try to be anything but what it’s meant to be.
“It’s not going to have that crazy hectic vibe, but that doesn’t mean it’s not gonna work,” Jones says, pointing out Monday dinners at CGS started as an accident. “I’m gonna let it grow, be its own thing. The same thing happens when parents let their kid be their own kid: You get the best kid instead of trying to control and push in one direction.”
You also get a damn good chef.
LOKAL at 1 Village Drive, Carmel Valley, is scheduled to conduct soft openings by Valentine’s Day. 659-5886. Visit mcweekly.com/edible for preliminary menus and updates.