Menton, written without the letter “e” at the end, is a picturesque city on the French Riviera close to the open border with Italy. It also is a high end, classically styled Boston restaurant run by Chef Barbara Lynch that focuses on French Provençal and Northwestern Italian coastal cooking. That much we can learn from Google.
Mentone, with an “e” added at the end, is a bit more of a mystery for the search engine gods to unravel. It’s not just about the facts and figures here, which the Internet handles rather well. It’s also about gut feelings and future prognostications, and humans still may be better suited to such tasks than Google. I’ll let you be the judge of that.
For starters, Mentone as an actual place doesn’t exist anymore in Europe, except as a long forgotten memory. It was annexed by Napoleon III’s France in 1860 from the Kingdom of Sardinia, who would soon go on to unify Italy within the same decade. What lingered after the political maneuvering was over were enduring regional traditions of food and culture that included things like an ardent love of garlic, basil, olive oil, and refreshingly crisp white and rosé wines that pair well with grilled fish and seafood. The French and Italian populations who live between the port cities of Nice and Genoa also share a distinct coastal Mediterranean influence that reflects the unique microclimate of the region as well as the heirloom food and grape varietals cultivated in the region for centuries.
So much for Mentone’s past. Mentone’s future is currently being written, but it’s not happening in Europe. It is happening here, outside of Santa Cruz, in the beach community of Aptos on the Central Californian coast, where the mountains and sea come together to produce microclimates perfectly suited for wine growing, sustainable fishing, and organic farming. If ever there were a New World location to recreate the magic that was historical Mentone, this would likely be that place.
Even though I don’t know him well enough to ask, it seems to have been Chef David Kinch’s founding vision for Mentone to take the best of French Provence, Northwestern Italy, and the Monterey Bay region and blend them all together to produce something accessible and affordable but also of lasting culinary value. He indicated as much in a revealing 2019 interview that appeared in the magazine, Edible Monterey Bay written by Sarah Wood.
At Mentone, it’s not about making a Michelin-starred statement or celebrating New Orleans food and music this time, as was the case with Manresa and The Bywater, which are both located in Los Gatos, near to the Silicon Valley metropolis of San Jose. I also suspect that it’s about making his coastal community a more attractive and comfortable place, food wise, to call home. A gift to his friends and neighbors after years of working in kitchens around the world at the highest level. And a coveted chance for younger generations of chefs, wine directors, mixologists, and wait staff to advance service industry journeys of their own. No, it’s not charity. It’s a business that must make a profit to stay afloat. But it also felt like a gift of sorts, from a master chef to his hard working crew and their dutifully paying customers. Maybe not a gift, exactly. But most definitely a message.
My gut feeling is that Mentone is intended to be a statement about the gastronomic present, one where contemporary eaters and drinkers rely on Yelp and Instagram for guidance, not the newspaper food critics or paid reviewers for Zagat. While the menu leans heavily towards traditional regional styles of cooking inspired by Italy and southeastern France, the overall vibe is contemporary and comfortable with lots of interesting wine, beer, cider, and cocktail choices and several seasonal specials that reflect the local farming and fishing seasons along the Central Coast. It’s a family-friendly, neighborhood hangout with a real deal kid’s menu, a highly desirable food tourist destination for singles and couples with weekday happy hour specials and rotating craft beer on tap, and a special occasion eating out spot with an excellent bottled wine list all rolled into one.
The city of Napoli is unquestionably the inspiration for Mentone’s über-popular pizzas, of which some four to five varieties are available daily. The flour, which is custom blended and milled at Manresa Bread in Los Gatos, is slowly and naturally fermented over the course of several days, giving it a distinctive sourdough tang and soft pliability. It is hand stretched thinly into rounds and filled with tomato sauce, cheese, or other toppings and baked rapidly in an Italian made wood-fired oven. The oven’s intense heat causes the edges to balloon up rapidly like life rafts, bubbling and charring in the process. By the time the pizza emerges from the oven, the cheese has melted into a semi-liquid sheen and the sauce has saturated the soft inner crust. The pizzaiolo slices each pie into six wedges, adds any remaining ingredients, and sends it out for service. It’s ample enough as a meal for one, or it could be shared as part of a multi course dining experience, depending on your preference.
Eating a pizza like this is an immersive experience that demands a bit of focus on your part. You will need both hands and possibly the assistance of a knife and fork to do so. It’s very different from New York style thin crust pizza or the Wolfgang Puck inspired, California-style gourmet pizzas that use fancy food items like sliced baby asparagus, Baja shrimp, fermented Serrano chiles, or curried jerk chicken. This is about honoring a regional style of pizza making that is practiced at a high level in Naples but that has spread globally because of its gustatory appeal. Mentone isn’t the only place in Northern California where you can find pizza like this (such as Centro, Doppio Zero, & Il Casaro), but it probably can lay claim to being the most committed to preserving Old World traditions.
Other parts of the compact food menu also highlight regional recipes, like the white bean and farro soup, chickpea and herb panisse, stracciatella soup, and tocco, a Ligurian meat sauce pasta similar to Bolognese. Seasonal specials, like a niçoise style salad with local eggs, tuna, and haricots verts (Riviera), porcini trennette pasta, or pumpkin ravioli with dandelion pesto, make use of the abundance of the Salinas Valley, Monterey Bay, and Santa Cruz coastal organic farms. Menus are posted daily, with some food and drink specials added to their Instagram feed as well. If you’re not a local who has dined here before, doing a bit of research ahead of time will make the first visit more memorable. When it doubt about a menu item, ask the staff. They are knowledgable, eager, and happy to help.
The most trenchant advice I can give you about Mentone is that to me it represents lean-and-mean DIY fine dining at its best, with a healthy dose of fancy casual, Cal-Ital cooking thrown in to render it more familiar and family friendly than might otherwise be the case. It’s a gastronomic wolf in soft and fluffy sheep’s clothing that would make aspiring James Beard types as well as Giada De Laurentiis fans happy, and that’s not easy.
If you want soft and fluffy, you order a salad, pasta, cocktail, or frozen aperol spritz and be done with it. You order a pizza or two to go for a simple Thursday dinner at home with the kids. You meet friends for local beer on draft and wine by the glass and work your way through the snacks and specials menu over the course of the season, whichever one it happens to be. It’s not cheap, but the quality is excellent. The flour is custom milled, the sourcing of fresh ingredients is local, many of the meats are prepared and cured in-house, and only the best imported cheeses, oils, and vinegars from France and Italy are used to prepare the dishes. Many of the staff previously have worked at Manresa, so they know how to show customers a good time. Don’t overanalyze. Just enjoy.
If you want to DIY fine dine at Mentone, you research the wine list ahead of time and identify bottles of interest, visiting wine importer web sites as needed for details on more obscure producers or grape varietals. You follow them on Instagram to see what new dishes or cocktails have been added to the menu and scan recent Yelp reviews for tips on busy or slow times of the day when chances are best for scoring a prime table. You focus on one or two menu items at a time and craft mini tasting menus for each visit, mentally comparing the Mentone approach to other restaurants, cafes, or food trucks you’ve been to before. You share everything, first with your dining companion(s) and then on social media. You reflect on what you ate and drank and how much effort went into producing them. And then, you allow yourself to get good and hungry for more.
In the years to come, Mentone will surely adapt to the changing times. Little Beach can’t stay the way that it is forever. Still, I hope that the commitments to regional cuisines, local ingredients, and inspired beverages will remain. I’ll be back at least once a season to have pasta, salads, soups, small plates, and more pizza, accompanied by another new and interesting bottle of French, Italian, or local wine. Even though it is less a a year old at this stage, Mentone is writing its own magnificent if understated history, one week and wine by the glass at a time. Stop by if you’re interested and play your part in its making.