Sunday, January 25, 2015
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
99 CENTS

From field to fork: Taking local to a new level

By
February 21, 2011 |

Tony Gruska, with Jim Eldon, stands in the kitchen of Monticello Bistro holding a plate of freshly made potato pancakes.

Monticello Bistro pushes ‘community-based’

I was thinking about taking this week off. If you look at a seasonality chart of  local fruits and vegetables, let’s just say that the word “cornucopia” wouldn’t be associated with late February.

Beets and other root crops are past their prime. Winter greens are about to bolt. Asparagus and other early spring bounty are still some weeks away.

But then I recalled that the new Monticello Seasonal Cuisine on G Street has now been open several weeks. Why not swing by? If any restaurant in Davis is dedicated to immersing itself into the community network of small, local farms and people who appreciate what they produce, this is it.
Rhonda and Tony Gruska, the owners, persevered mightily in their efforts to lease a site and get the space ready and approved. Personally, I would have bled out by the curb, having slit my wrists, but that’s what separates restaurant people from normal mortals. The hours are long, and there’s always something.

A partner joined in along the way — Jim Eldon, a fixture in the local farm community, who with Julie Rose has operated Fiddlers’ Green Farm in Capay Valley. He earned a bachelor degree in philosophy long ago; he should know better. But then, life on a farm isn’t exactly eight to five either.

Happily, the owners were tired on the Saturday I visited. The night before they’d had quite a crowd, and they were booked heavily for that Saturday evening.  They’re hopeful. Their approach is to be “community-based.” That may make Monticello a happening place. Time will tell.

Not long ago they made a two-year run with their Monticello Bistro in Winters, and that didn’t work out too well. Neither has the Winters Farmers Market for that matter. It’s a smaller market, isolated, a different demographic, and I can’t speak to their food preferences.

The bistro had customers from Davis, Sacramento,  and Solano County, but few from Winters, according to Tony. The bistro includes very small suppliers in their food chain, says Rhonda, who runs the front of the bistro. She touts their coffee, for example, which comes from the Pepper Peddler, a local micro-business. Its owner pays college students to pedal a bicycle to generate power for roasting the single-source coffee beans here in Davis. The bistro uses eggs, produce and some fruit from Full Circle Farm, a tiny operation involving a student studying agriculture at UC Davis. Kitchen scraps from the restaurant’s kitchen are returned, full circle, to feed their chickens.

Much of their food is very straightforward. It’s almost like you’d prepare at home, if you cared enough and had a goodly measure of skill to work with a recipe. For example, their roasted beets with béchamel sauce is easy enough to make – heat some butter, stir in flour and hot milk to create the sauce — but who makes a béchamel sauce in the home kitchen? The same could be said of their Cobb salad, with caramelized onions and housemade croutons.  A labor of love, that.

In the past I’ve pulled a recipe or two from Seasons, Tucos and Fat Face, three local eateries that feature proteins and produce from area farms. Here’s one from Monticello’s brunch menu, which might be an enjoyable alternative to frozen waffles on Sundays with your teenagers. (I hated to give up frozen waffles when our children went to college, but I couldn’t justify making them for me alone.)

Potato Pancakes

If you’re Jewish, yes, these are basically latkes, the potato pancakes you know from Hanukkah. The bistro uses local Yukon Gold potatoes.

The ingredients:
4 medium Yukon Gold potatoes
1 egg
1 teaspoon flour
1 shallot
2 tablespoon canola oil
A high-quality applesauce
Sour cream

Putting it together:
Shred both the shallot and the raw, peeled potatoes into a pile of matchsticks, or grate coarsely on a cheese grater. Soak in water for two minutes; let drip in a colander; squeeze out the remaining moisture by hand. (Don’t make them well ahead, as they’ll discolor unless you do additional rinsing). Put this in a bowl with a whisked raw egg and the flour. Mix well with your hands. Heat a cast-iron or stainless steel pan on medium high. When hot, add canola or grapeseed oil to easily cover the bottom of the pan; wait 20 seconds for the oil to heat; then add several small, goopy handfuls of the mixture, well separated. You want immediate sizzling. The mixture will spread out; tamp it a bit as necessary to produce pancake shapes. When one side is browned, after perhaps two minutes, flip carefully. You’ll get the knack of it after the first batch, just as you did when you made pancakes the first few times. Too crisp is not good; not crisp enough might yield a taste of rawness. Adjust the heat or length of time intuitively. In the bistro, I noticed that Tony drizzled a bit more oil here and there after he’s flipped the potato pancakes, as they’d absorbed the first round.
Serve with a good applesauce, which is appreciably better in this dish than the sugary, runny popular brands. The bistro had a marvelous homemade apple sauce, with a lot of texture. The sour cream is a traditional accompaniment. Serves 4.
— Dan Kennedy, a Davis resident, has a long history with the bounty of gardens and small farms. Reach him at kennedynow@yahoo.com.

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