monterey county herald

Cookhouse Takes it's Menu Up a Notch

Mike Hale, The Grub Hunter - May 14, 2013

Linda Cantrell had run a successful restaurant for three years, but knew in her gut it was time to tweak. Her kitchen at the Monterey Cookhouse needed consistency, organization, management . . . and a heavy dose of estrogen.

So she hired a kindred spirit, a woman after her own heart, a like-minded, food-crazed soul who sold herself during the interview when she admitted that she dreamed about food.

"That did it for me," said Cantrell, who hired Tracie Holt and her husband Hamid Borna in January to inject some adrenaline into this kind-hearted, wood-fired restaurant in New Monterey.

The husband-and-wife team manages the kitchen as co-executive chefs, with Holt taking the lead management role. Each has extensive experience. Holt, a culinary school grad who gravitated to the front of the house after motherhood, formerly managed Montrio Bistro, ran a catering business, a prepared-foods outlet and learned her service sensibilities at the prestigious Marinus at Bernardus Lodge.

Borna owned Bijan's on the Coast Guard Pier (Persian fusion cuisine), was the chef at Ventana Inn and Spa in the early 1990s and worked with Holt at Bernardus for eight years.

"They had such a great concept here at the Cookhouse," Holt said. "We wanted to help bring everything they were doing up a notch. We want to make what people want to eat, and make it well every time."

Cantrell loves the way Holt took control in the kitchen, managing the staff (all men) and controlling food costs. But mostly she loves Holt's attitude."She brings a joyous energy and passion to what she does," Cantrell said."I feel like we're on the same wavelength," Holt said. "It's refreshing to work with someone who understands comfort food. When I want to deep-fry meatloaf she's there cheering me on."

They gather in the kitchen like two mad scientists, cackling together upon each creation. Last week they made a hamburger using two grilled cheese sandwiches for the buns. Then they made a hamburger with ground beef and chopped brisket ... and deep-fried it for kicks. Later they created a new dessert by smoking a chocolate torte, serving it with salted caramel sauce and melted marshmallows.

Some of what Cantrell calls "PMS recipes" end up on the menu (such as Holt's deep-fried macaroni and cheese balls), while others just serve to boost creativity ... and morale.

Many items on the revamped menu appear similar, but were actually elevated by Holt and Borna. The brisket is now smoked twice as long, the stuffing for the mushrooms is now creamier with the addition of mascarpone cheese, and the mushroom is cooked through and tender. Fries now arrive with three dipping sauces; orange-soy, barbecue and chipotle aioli. "We want everything that leaves the kitchen to be perfect," Holt said. "Consistency is the key."

The Cookhouse still embraces comfort food, with burgers, pizza, ribs, brisket and chicken leading the way. Holt and Borna have added items such as short rib risotto with red wine reduction, a traditional bolognese and an elegant Cornish game hen.

They ditched the tired Buffalo wings in favor of elegant lollipop chicken wings with orange-chile-soy glaze, and the fried calamari is now lighter and brighter with slivers of lemon and whole capers joining the fryer.

Deals still abound. Nab a burger, fries and beer for $10 during happy hour (4-6p.m. daily or during Giants and A's games). And no fewer than 11 appetizers are priced at $5.

The Monterey Cookhouse features California cuisine, a delicious fusion of cooking styles and ingredients from around the world. We are well-known for our wood-fired cuisine. Our house specialties include delicious flame broiled steaks,
lightly smoked and barbecued ribs and briskets, and fresh seafood.
Traeger Smoker - Oak-fired Grill - Wood-fired Pizza Oven - Family friendly
Barbecued ribs, brisket, & pulled pork. Oak-grilled steaks. Smoked prime rib. Fresh seafood. Wood-fired pizza.