The first thing you notice about chef Christian Ojeda’s menu at Lucia Restaurant & Bar is the utter lack of grandiloquence.
There are no references to wild, hand caught, day boat or anything that may glorify the fresh seasonality—it’s just “King Salmon.” It’s the same down the line, with just an occasional mention of a brand: Braised beef short rib, double cut lamb chop, Mary’s organic chicken breast and so on.
What you notice next is that Ojeda saves loquaciousness for the plate. Slivers of strawberry tucked in an heirloom tomato carpaccio seem to launch the earthtone sweetness of fruit, while freshly spun mozzarella dissolves into an opulent finish. Petite greens elevate simple avocado toast as bittersweet, peppery, tangy, minty sparkles dart over the palate, easing into the cashmere warmth of poached eggs.
These are layered flavors that drape over the palate and engulf the senses. Ribbons of fat lend the salmon a rich savor that cushions pops of grassy sweetness from a sprinkle of English peas. Caramelized onions provide a dense, leisurely tang that complements the husky note of a smoked tomato emulsion. On another occasion, the fish is paired with a summer corn succotash with a sauce of scallion and red pepper.
Ojeda calls his approach “chef to farm.” He visits with farmers and providers and gets to know them and their product. He may take asparagus from one for its quality, but turn to another for corn. The person who brings mushrooms pulls up in a beat up Toyota.
It helps that his kitchen sits on the Bernardus Lodge property in Carmel Valley, with its olive orchard, rows of lavender, beehives and two-acre organic garden. The chef is able to change the menu seasonally, as new ingredients arrive “and then when I get bored.”
Ojeda took over the kitchen made legendary by Cal Stamenov, who moved on after 22 award-winning years at the helm, arriving on Feb. 1 of this year.
It might have seemed a daunting task, but Ojeda brought an impressive resume of his own, with stints in Europe, at the famed Fleur de Lys in Las Vegas and destination resorts. He came to Carmel Valley from the Montage Deer Valley Resort in Park City, Utah, the state’s only five-star, five-diamond property.
“It’s super exciting to be in this area,” Ojeda says during a visit earlier this year as he launched a menu change. “My first goal was to create a culture where people want to work with me, not for me.”
Actually, one of the first tasks he took on in February was painting the pantry, unwilling to wait out a contractor’s schedule. Ojeda grabbed a brush and a can of “gray-ish” paint.
“I’m over white,” he explains.
The chef is trained in classical European techniques. Yet there’s a contemporary edge to his dishes that suggests a mind unbound by tradition even though versed in bordelaise and gribiche. Earlier this summer he brought out three specials with aguachile as the foundation.
At the root of any fusion of classic, modern and global is a willingness to understand cultures and flavors and adapt them to a chef’s personal style. But Ojeda also spends a lot of time studying menus.
“I like to see what people are doing,” he says. “I collect menus.”
Perhaps that’s why he keeps explanations simple on the menu at Lucia. He lets the dishes tell the story.