I was excited to learn that Pajo Bruich, the artistic, modernist chef with the ever-growing reputation (but still rather thin resume) had landed a new gig as executive chef at Enotria. That's the restaurant with the stellar wine list that, at least to me, tended to under-achieve in the kitchen.
Is this the final piece of the puzzle for a place that appears to have not only deep pockets but a commitment to raise the bar?
When I encountered Bruich's food over the past year at Lounge ON20, where he teamed with sous chef extraordinaire Mike Ward, I was sometimes blown away by the flavor combinations, the thinking behind the ingredients, the arcane techniques, the artistry of the plating and the unabashed yearning to do something new and innovative. I like people who aren't comfortable fitting in and being ordinary, especially when they have the talent and know-how to back up their peculiarities.
The Lounge gig didn't last. People didn't get it. And the restaurant wasn't really a restaurant -- it was a lounge that happened to have a kitchen. The lounge didn't showcase Bruich and Ward properly, if at all. In fact, the very people who might admire their food - savvy, well-traveled and well-heeled epicureans -- would take one look at the exterior of Lounge ON20, complete with a big, bad bouncer standing guard outside, and rightly conclude, "Not for me."
Lounge hired Bruich to do his thing. Then after a month or two of lagging sales, instead of marketing the food better, it pulled back. Bruich's new marching orders? "You know why we hired you? To be modernist and artistic and edgy? Don't do that."
Lounge soon went under and the talent in the kitchen went its separate ways. It was a lost opportunity and a potentially tragic one. Ward is doing big things these days as chef and product development guy at the new and enterprising Feeding Crane Farms. Bruich did a stage (that's French for work for free) at Michelin two-star Benu in San Francisco) to clear his head and assess his next move.
Meanwhile, Kathi Riley, the low-key restaurant consultant (she doesn't have a website and doesn't really advertise how effective she can be), was hired by Enotria to elevate the food program. She was the one who got the very talented Gabriel Glasier on board at Maranello in Fair Oaks. She didn't know Bruich and hadn't dined at Lounge ON20. But when she read the place was closing, she began to ponder the possibilities. Wouldn't it be something, she mused, to match up Enotria's ambitious wine program with Bruich's enterprising and artistic cooking? The two met and talked and hit it off. Riley broached the idea with Enotria's owner, David Hardie. She laid it all out, detailed the potential upside and Hardie was quick to green light the plan. Negotiations ensued.
Then my heart sank a little when I read my colleague Chris Macias' piece on Tuesday about the new venture. Bruich was de-empahsizing his molecular gastronomy bent and, he proclaimed, would come to Enotria doing food based on seasonal ingredients using classic techniques. Gee, that's great and all, but hardly exciting. Was he starting to listen to the naysayers? Was he too willing to tone down his work in the interests of being more like everyone else?
So I called Riley. I called Bruich. Granted, the dude had been over-exposed. He was on the cover of a local magazine. He was in The Bee. He was on TV. He was the toast of Facebook. And how many restaurant kitchens had he run? Exactly one. For all of a year. Most of the attention focused on how he was using these cutting-edge techniques known as molecular gastronomy, and it would be safe to conclude, if you had not eaten his cooking, that it was a bit of an affectation, a show. But it wasn't.
Molecular gastronomy is a bad name whose time has come - and gone. No chef wants to be associated with it because no great chef wants to be pigeonholed or typecast. When I asked Christopher Kostow, the chef at Michelin three-star Meadowood in St. Helena, he said he didn't like the term, even though he employs many of those techniques. Indeed, a chef needs to use whatever tools and whatever techniques to create the food he or she wants to create. Sometimes that means sous vide and nitrogen. Sometimes it means pan-frying and bubbly butter. Modernist cuisine seems much more appropriate - and user friendly.
Riley says she talked about making Bruich's food more accessible without toning down the ideas and the ambition.
"What we talked about," she told me, " was that when you get put into a really specific category, like his definition of doing molecular gastronomy, while that can pique the curiosity of some people, others might say, 'That doesn't sound like the kind of food I want to eat.'"
Says Bruich, "I hate labels. My food is very, very personal. It's my art form. I don't do a style. I'm going to stay true to myself. I'm going to stay who I am no matter what the media says. This program (at Enotria), I want to keep it really close to me. It really is a step in a different direction, but I am swinging for the fences more than I ever have. This is the most exciting thing I've ever done and I have the most exciting, hardworking and passionate team."
(The dish photographed at the top of this blog post is from a test run for the new Enotria menu; the components include Caviar, fig, cauliflower, monkfish liver, saltwort).
Unlike Lounge, Enotria actually looks like a restaurant, and the fact that it's tucked away on Del Paso Boulevard (just 10 minutes from midtown) now makes it seem more alluring and distinct than ever. The place has the well-known and highly praised wine cellar, 32 wines by the glass, respected sommelier Matthew Lewis - and now the final piece of the puzzle. Bruich's team includes Stan Moore, a star in his own right during his time at the $125-per-person Kitchen Restaurant, and Edward Martinez, a modernist pastry chef with compelling life story (one chronicled by Macias in The Bee). Martinez distinguished himself at Hawks in Granite Bay, which just may be the area's best restaurant. Why would a guy like that leave a restaurant like that? Exactly - Enotria wants to be even better. And you know what? The potential is certainly there.
"Its simple, it's beautiful and there's incredible flavor," Riley said, describing the food from Bruich's menu-in-progress. "We're pulling out all the stops. We're going to be taking chances, and he's going to be doing things that are driven by his passion."
The expectations are extremely high. The excitement is at the boiling point. Now comes the hard part: Bruich has to prove himself, wow customers and take Enotria to new heights.
Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.