Palo Colorado’s legendary Rocky Point Restaurant is back, fresh and clean.
Thursday, March 14, 2013
Rocky fans love a good comeback.
Where there were green ceilings and doo-doo brown walls there are rich wood tones, cool creams and a gold borrowed from the rocks below. Where there were filthy wood shelves and icky linoleum, there is a sparkling new hood and yards of stainless steel. Where there were limited tables on a raised floor, there are smaller tops and a much more open room. Where there was pooling sewage and a sump pump, there are shiny grates and 12-inch-diameter drain line. Most importantly, where there was a dark sunset on Big Sur’s horizon, there is now a glorious new dawn – and one that has already survived a thunderstorm.
Rocky Point (624-2933), which even predates Nepenthe Restaurant, long ranked among the area’s top splurge spots for classic steak-and-potato fare – before its slow demise was drawn out over a decade by its for-sale status, sleepy leadership and slipping standards that no longer matched the prices.
Rehab was sudden and blistering and a half-million bucks, five weeks of all-out warfare on what recovering restaurant guy/local realtor/Rocky Point “ambassador” John Kenny calls “30 years of code violations.”
“It shoulda been a reality show,” Kenny says. “I wish I had six months. Peter wanted it done in six-to-eight weeks because he didn’t want the employees out of work any longer.”
Opening day Monday could’ve been a great episode – call it “Rocky Start.” After a boomer lunch rush (130 covers) bordered on all-out anarchy, Chef Christophe Bony closed the restaurant for another day and a half of training.
“Better to do it like that than do it wrong,” Bony says.
Hey – obstacles are inevitable, and make comebacks more intriguing.
“It was a reality check,” Kenny says. “The employees weren’t ready.”
The employees are largely returning from Rocky Point’s last incarnation, the same bartender and assistant managers among them. Peter is Peter Wang, whose story, like Rocky Point’s itself, is fascinating. He made a mint in real estate after coming to the U.S. in 1957 – he and his wife Grace have lived in Pebble Beach for 43 years – and earned his doctorate in probability theory. He’s rolled his fortune into his Wang Foundation for ambitious but attuned programs in China and the U.S. that send college students into poor areas to learn by doing.
“It’s education for the 21st century: service learning,” he says. “Not getting a PhD in a classroom, but working in the countryside, in real life, then going to school.”
After asking after the property he often visited with his wife (when its price tag was closer to $20 million) Wang, 76, pounced on the heavily discounted $4.75 million opportunity.
“Americans always say, ‘How’s business?’” he says. “The older generation in China always says ‘Have you eaten?’ We’re talking about both here… don’t make a deal on a golf course. Do it here!”
His enthusiasm about the onrushing future has had him on property every day at 7:30am during the remake – and speaking exuberantly last week after an on-site sponsorship meeting with Big Sur International Marathon officials, a partnership that brings immediate (and serendipitous) credibility to a stated desire to click with the community.
“In America there is only one last real village, Big Sur!” Wang says. “Can you find this scenery elsewhere? All the rich history is long forgotten. My ambition is to bring back the old glory!”
Kenny’s connections to a Big Sur-era gone by are both personal and practical. He grew up sneaking past local ranchers firing salt-loaded shotguns at him to surf Big Sur’s river mouth before it became Andrew Molera State Park. As a class-of-1972 Carmel High Padre he ate dinner at Rocky Point on prom night; his family’s friendship with then-owners, Al Moraz and Jack Currier, has helped lead to the unearthing of original cheese bread and blue cheese dressing recipes lost for 30-plus years.
The other principal protagonist, Bony, hails from France, by way of Casanova in Carmel. He envisions stylish takes on standards and the freshest South Coast plunder he can find. Think baby-back ribs treated not with a heavy sauce but a nice Big Sur honey-Meyer lemon glaze ($25) and fried shallot-forest mushroom salad ($15) with canary and pink shrooms gathered by local foragers.
“The same proteins, done in a new, clean way,” Bony says. “Roadhouse style, simple food, only fresh ingredients.”
His first menu also includes grilled artichokes ($12), a half-pound burger ($17), panzanella salad and prawns ($18), a Mediterranean tuna confit sandwich ($17) and Prince Edward Island mussels simmered in dark beer and aromatics “Belgian style” ($18). Bony says some 40 lobster rolls ($19) flew from the kitchen Monday. (Hit the blog to see the menu.)
Kenny insists prices are lower than Rocky 5’s. World champion items like the baked potato ($7) will be back, with a twist; chef’s leaning toward twice baked with bacon and caramelized onions. The whole team is hustling to build a locally driven wine list, while folks from places like Joyce and Silvestri have generously granted them small amounts to get started. Bony’s already dreaming of wine dinners and a weekend farm stand in the parking lot.
As old Rocky fans return, the Wangs anticipate they’ll have some company.
“There are going to be a lot of Chinese tourists,” Grace says, citing traffic and tourism stats on the area. “There are lots of new cities in China. But they don’t have this. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese are tired of visiting New York.”
Rocky Point has already welcomed a delegation from the Beijing’s Tsinghua University last week. Among the talking points circulated by the Wangs: Their hope to start a General Joseph Stilwell Scholarship to bring Chinese students to MIIS, and another scholarship to send American students to China.
One that needed no circulation: How excited the team is. “We’re here at Rocky Point!” Wang shouts, wearing a smile wide enough to stretch to China.
• Carmel’s Community Action and Cultural Committee just gave its City Council – and a decorated ad hoc group formed to help determine how to best launch the town’s long overdue farmers market – a big fat “Nah” as they rejected the unanimous recommendation of Everyone’s Harvest and Iris Peppard in favor of Redwood City-based West Coast Farmers Market Association and Jerry Lami. More on the blog.
• Chef Cy Yontz has some insanely attractive new menu items in the offing at Rio Grill, including pear tomato-corn-jalapeño-pigweed salad with double-smoked Baker’s Bacon ($8.95) and carnitas-stuffed cheddar biscuits ($4). Plus Wine’d Up Mondays lifts off March 19. More on the blog.
• They won for Best French, but deserve Best Restaurant for Wine-Buying Parties. From 2:30-4:30pm Saturday, March 16, the good folks at Fifi’s (372-5325) pour 22 different French and California wines ($35; $20 off with 12 bottle buys). Last time I planned on buying a couple of nice imports and left with a case. The values demanded it.
• Sunday through Thursday till March 28, Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar (646-1700) – your pick for Best Drink With a View and Best Outdoor Dining – celebrates a year since its makeover with a four course ($36; $54 with sparkling pairing): triple oyster tasting, angry prawns, peanut-crusted mahi mahi (or roast chicken with butternut squash ravioli or seafood pasta) and more.
•Bacon master Tony Baker hams it up instead at Montrio Bistro’s (648-8881) next artisan series class/lunch ($55) Saturday, March 16, keying guests in on how to cook the perfect ham. Traditional recipes and responsible ingredient sourcing tips too, as well as a three-course lunch and wine pairing to pork out on.
• It’s the ultimate death match: Crab versus almonds versus sourdough bread versus artichokes versus avocados versus wine grapes. Whadda’ what? Hit the blog.
•Justin Cogley of Aubergine (624-8578) has been nominated for Food & Wines’s The People’s Best New Chef 2013. Vote by March 18 at www.foodandwine.com/peoples-best-new-chef/california.
•Stone Creek Kitchen’s (393-1042) March 21 Planet Pinot event compares regional varieties of the vino from France, Oregon, New Zealand and California. Wine mind Jim Knight of the Henry Wine Group guides the tasting, while SCK co-proprietor and head cook Kristina Scrivani serves small bites to accompany the drink selections.
•Puma Road (776-9056) does a nice little wine dinner with Ron Benedetti Catering March 15 and 16, which they hope will be the first in a series. The five-course dinner – ahi cakes, avocado-kale salad, Greek lemon soup and halibut risotto – is only $32.50, though wines ($6-$12/glass, $10-$40/bottle) are extra. RSVP is wise; the box isn’t big.
• “Sometimes the questions are complicated,” Dr. Seuss once said, “and the answers are simple.”