Comfort Class

Chef Todd Fisher cuddles a speck ham outside of Tarpy’s Roadhouse, where he’s been imprinting his unique flavor combos since taking the helm last April.

Tarpy’s is the closest restaurant to the home I grew up in. I have countless memories celebrating birthdays and grabbing a nice dinner before a high school dance. It plays a part in my childhood.

But children grow up, and Tarpy’s is doing something similar. In April, Executive Chef Michael Kimmel’s 20-year tenure closed, and the reins were handed to Todd Fisher.

Some have seen Fisher on his Destination America show, United States of Bacon. His personality and sense of humor feel made for TV, but also prove good to have in the kitchen during stressful times.

Fisher ran Sticks at the Inn at Spanish Bay after a solid run at his own Hullaballoo in Oldtown Salinas, which he sold in 2007 before it closed in 2009. (The space is now Patria.) But it was a lesser-known spot, his Sand City event/commercial space The Kitchen – which sold to owners of Kuki’s Gourmet Food Truck in 2013 – that was the most cutting-edge hospitality concept I’ve seen in these parts. And the place that best spotlighted his insightful imagination.

At Tarpy’s, the gorgeous stone backdrops, private dining rooms for small and medium-sized parties and lovely courtyard remain. Not the menu. No more spud sampler, a highlight of my youth. In its place is a more mature side dish: roasted cauliflower and Brussels sprout leaves with a bourbon syrup ($5).

The theme is now comfort with a heavy helping of creativity. Small plates and large plates often enjoy a Southern twist, like the honey – and hot-sauce glazed ribs ($13), slow-cooked, smoked, grilled, glazed and served with slaw. Other new “small” plates include sweet-tea-brined chicken wings ($9), fried crispy with a honey cayenne hot sauce and Gorgonzola dressing; kale chips ($4) dusted with Parmesan; “frickles” – cornmeal fried pickles and green goddess aioli ($5); and the one that had me a bit puzzled, the Frito pie ($5).

You can’t go wrong with melted cheese, diced pickled jalapeños and corn chips with some chili, but the American buffalo chili was sweet and had me craving diced red onions, Tabasco and sour cream to make this dish more savory. Turns out the molasses makes it a Cincinnati-style chili, a Fisher nod to his nana.

Tarpy’s has held onto some long-time favorites, like chili-crusted chicken breast with Gruyere scalloped potatoes, green beans and apricot barbecue sauce served with cactus-shaped cornbread ($16), classic meatloaf topped with marsala-and-mushroom gravy with garlic mashed potatoes and green beans ($16) and coal-roasted artichoke ($10).

One must-try new entree is the tender cast-iron-simmered sea scallops ($23) that come with Montrio Bistro Chef Tony Baker’s bacon – rubbed with coffee and cocoa – and plated with sweet cream grits, roasted cauliflower and a bourbon syrup. The bacon, more like a small pork belly steak, and the grits, which Fisher says “change your life,” are big parts of a triumphant plate. His new winter items, around 10 all told, arrive at the end of the month.

Vegans need not fear, what with choices like the acorn squash gnocchi ($19) with a faux Parmesan cheese.

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Over five visits, grabbing a seat has never been an issue, even when it’s crowded. But once seated, we’ve encountered some spotty service. I’ve dined on a very busy Father’s Day – when they rolled out a four-course bacon tasting menu – and on days with several private parties at once. But when it’s not busy between 2-4pm, and the food comes before the drinks, I start to wonder.

A top-notch wine list and their new cocktails, when they arrive, help you forget the wait. Some to earmark: the Tex Mex michelada ($10), a Corona-based cocktail with hints of horseradish, Worcestershire, Tabasco and lime juice, and the Kentucky buck ($11) with bourbon, muddled strawberry, lemon, simple syrup and ginger beer. And the gin-lemon-Cointreau-orange marmalade in the breakfast martini ($10.50).

Speaking of breakfast, Sunday brunch (11:30am-3pm) does it one better. The menu is short but the choices are one-of-a-kind and generously portioned. The cinnamon squarenuts ($6) are a revelation, like glazed raised donuts that have been griddled so the glaze acts like the scorched sugar on a creme brulee. They’re soft, sweet, and sensational. The La Quercia shaved American prosciutto with local peaches and a maple drizzle ($8) is noteworthy, but the true menu coup has to be the lobster avocado Benedict ($23) with poached eggs and citrus-chive hollandaise on warm brioche. The biscuits and milk gravy ($4) also look like a winner.

I opt for the Berkshire pork chops ($22), a glacier-sized chop topped with poached eggs, deliciously moist potatoes, maple-sage butter and herb salad. There is no way I could have finished it in one sitting.

After decades of destination dining, Tarpy’s has found a chef whose evolution parallels the restaurant’s. Both have plenty of history, but I get the sense they’re both just coming into their prime. Growing up never tasted so good.

TARPY’S ROADHOUSE 2999 Monterey Salinas Highway, Monterey• lunch daily from 11:30am, dinner nightly from 4pm, 11:30am-3pm Sunday brunch. • 647-1444,

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