Todd Fisher knows all too well that he set himself up for a trap.
The new restaurant under the Folktale Winery umbrella that the chef helms – Pacific Bowls & Rolls – leans toward the build-your-own concept, with only a few set menu options. Guests pick a vessel (bowl, roll or banh mi) and then select from a list of meat, vegetable and condiment options.
What makes this so precarious is the array of pronounced Asian flavors – kimchi, kalbi, char siu, wakame, nuoc cham – and the chance that a diner might force clashing elements together and come away blaming the kitchen.
“It’s a customize world,” Fisher observes with a hint of resignation.
So the PBR team, which includes Chef Eddie Martinez, put together a few examples. These set menu items, such as the tuna poke bowl or the pork belly banh mi, are intended as guidelines – “like teaching an art class,” Fisher says.
Judging by the “Pac” bibimbap, Fisher approaches cooking like Derain or Pollock size up a canvas. He paints with togarashi roasted carrots, strips of beef dripping sweet-pungent kalbi, fresh cucumbers, the bracing fangs of kimchi, bean sprouts – the list goes on, sitting on top of rice and under a poached egg.
The result is nothing like a rote creation by the old masters. It’s more like a wild carnival of individual ingredients that bump and mingle haphazardly, occasionally buddying up for a ride before heading off on separate ways. The beef is tender and lost – in a good way – in the earthy, spicy marinade. An eponymous PBR sauce shadows the kimchi. Otherwise, this is a swirl of flavors and textures, with the same giddy appeal as a spinning, screaming tilt-a-whirl.
“Some people need extremes,” Fisher explains. “For me, that’s perfect.”
But the pre-set options are not always so unkempt. PBR’s “So-Cal” carrot roll is a hefty thing, laden with both fresh and pickled vegetables in a fragrant sheet of nori. And if the bibimbap is a carnival ride, the hand roll is a community chorus – unassuming and occasionally off-beat, but still nicely composed.
The barbed heat of kimchi is tempered by pickled ginger. Fresh cucumber sweetens the crunch of green onion. The nori and cilantro sway distinctive grassy notes throughout, blending into the sweet earthiness of the featured vegetable.
Fisher says they first considered adding a spicy tuna roll to the menu. But the conversation turned on Folktale Chef Danny Leach and his love of vegetable-centric dishes.
“Why do traditional?” Fisher adds. “What I love about this dish is you taste every single ingredient.”
Vegetables and meat wait in containers, and the pork belly had settled and toughened up on a Saturday visit, making a build-your-own bowl less impressive than the rest. It’s another possible pitfall Fisher acknowledges – ingredients sitting too long – and one that can happen through inattention.
But that comes with the concept.
PACIFIC BOWLS & ROLLS, 475 Alvarado St., Monterey. Sun-Thu 11am-9pm, Fri-Sat 11am-11pm. 583-8433, pacificbowlsandrolls.com