Blue Cow, the latest project from an expanded team behind the string of Mendocino Farms sandwich shops, opened Feb. 13, bringing a brimming kitchen agenda to California Plaza. Leave it to a restaurant that comes bundled with a suite of sustainable/locavore/farm-to-table values, and an interior full of nods to California locations and intriguing objects related to food production and family history, to set down roots in the austere landscape of Bunker Hill. Maybe food can heal some wounds of urban renewal, after all. At least Blue Cow, which we previewed several months back, already has one set of exceptionally friendly neighbors.
The menu, designed by executive chef Joshua Smith (Church & State, Anisette, Estiatorio Milos at the Cosmopolitan Las Vegas) in collaboration with Mendocino Farms partner and chef Judy Han, features riffs on what are Mendocino Farms' established stable of riffs on traditional sandwiches. Plus plenty of choices that have little or nothing to do with stuff between bread. There is much globe-trotting cuisine, which at dinner is divided into bar-friendly Bites, Snack Sandwiches, Veggies to Share, Housemade Sausages, Sandwiches, Salads and Soups, and Big Plates.
The banh mini is one such attempt at a meta Mendo dish. Pork belly is joined by a jolt of house-pickled vegetables and cilantro aioli and wrapped in bánh xeo crepes. The lamb lavash features kefta on flatbread, combined with roasted pepper, Soledad Creamery tzatziki and adorned with a single French fry. The BarbaFaux'a Torta showcases proteins in the form of shaved seitan and crumbled tofu.
Then there's the new and intensely researched burger. And Smith's Roots and Berries salad, with shavings of watermelon radishes and other seasonal root vegetables tossed with kale, quinoa, wheatberries and dried cranberries on a bed of mellow saffron vinaigrette. California produce lovers can nibble their way through virtuous bags of BBQ'd brassicas full of Weiser Farms broccoli and cauliflower florets that have been grilled, then smoked in a brown paper sack, and come served alongside tangy apple cider and rémoulade sauces.
While Blue Cow is a full-service restaurant, the open kitchen helps keep the “think tank” and experimental component in full view. Granted much of the collaboration between Mendocino Farms staff and the rotating roster of consulting chefs (starting with Jason and Miho Travi) doesn't happen when the room is open for business, but there's a smartly flowing circulation to the interior design by John Kim of Poon Design, in collaboration with the owners, Mario Del Pero and Ellen Chen.
Del Pero has chosen to display heirlooms from his family's roots in the Northern California meat industry in niches above the banquettes, along with reproduction of Smith's grandmother's recipe book. A cluster of vintage Hobart mixer attachments have been cleverly reconfigured into pendant lighting fixtures and placed above the entrance. An illustrated chalkboard map by former Mendocino Farms employee/current full-time artist Liza Burns comprises the east wall.
Steve Livigni's (La Descarga, Harvard & Stone) beverage program features a “soda jerk-meets-bartender” approach, maximizing use of the midcentury-style soda fountain dispensers and ample dual bar space, both outside on the patio and indoors. Examples: the Root “Beer” Float with Zaya rum, hefty Straffe Hendrick quadruple ale, Art in the Age root liqueur and a whipped sarsaparilla cream; and the Gin & Tonic Experiment, with gin, Aperol, tonic, orange, cucumber, black peppercorn and fresh red bell pepper.
Wines are mostly from California, with a few imports, available for 3-ounce tastes or 6-ounce pours, as well as a beer list with bottles and a draft list divided into “Great” and “Exceptional.” Either way, all draft beers are from a state-of-the-art system that individually regulates temperature and conditions for each brew. That doesn't sound terribly rustic. So be it. Blue Cow is open from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m.