by Jeff Pelline | Sierra Food Wine Art
LOCALS CALL THE NORTH BERKELEY neighborhood where Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in 1971 the “gourmet ghetto” because of its high concentration of restaurants that serve locally grown, organic food.
In the Sierra foothills, the charming town of Nevada City is gaining fame for its own style of fresh, organic cuisine, with food that is grown at farms in the surrounding foothills. It is delivered daily to restaurants that are within walking distance of one another.
The restaurants in the city’s historic district that are renowned for their farmfresh cuisine include New Moon Café, Citronée Bistro and Ike’s Quarter Café. A pub-style restaurant called Matteo’s Public just opened, serving comfort food from local growers.
A trip to the south of France in the ‘60s inspired Waters’ cooking style. For Ike and Adrienne Frazee, the thirtysomething owners of Ike’s Quarter Cafe, it was a trip to New Orleans—on their honeymoon, no less. They’ve returned there more times since.
“New Orleans cuisine is one of the only tried-and-true American creations,” says Ike, who went to cooking school at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and has been a speaker at the Eco-Farm conference, a longtime national gathering to promote safe and healthful food production.
Ike sums up his cuisine like this: “Serve organic locally grown foods made from scratch that you can feel good about eating.”
Menu items include New Orleans classics such as Jambalaya, including a vegetarian version; gumbo, blackened catfish and muffuletta (pronounced
“muff-uh-LOT-uh”) sandwich, which includes green olive caper dressing, ham, salami and mozzerella cheeze on a homemade bun.
Another classic is a po’ boy made of cornmeal crusted oysters from Drake’s Bay Oyster Farms north of San Francisco, known for sustainable, environmentally friendly farming.
But as Ike points out, his menu provides “something for everyone.” His burgers are famous. They are made from naturally raised beef from local purveyors such as Nevada County Free Range Beef, fresh tomatoes from River Hill Farms near Nevada City and home-made buns with organic grains from Grass Valley Grains.
“This summer, darn near 100 percent of our vegetables will be local,” says Ike. A growing number of restaurants and kitchens in the area serve locally grown food besides Ike’s and New Moon. They include Diego’s, Summer Thymes Bakery & Deli, and the BriarPatch Deli, as well as
California Organics and In the Kitchen Cooking Classes in Nevada City.
ORGANIC FOOD BOOMING
Despite the recession, the organic food business continues to boom, as consumers become more conscious where their food comes from. U.S. sales of organic food and beverages have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to an estimated $23 billion last year, according to the Organic Trade Association in Massachusetts.
At Ike’s, the farm fresh food is served inside a historic building, as well as outdoors on a new deck. The handsome deck is built of recycled wood, from a coastal forest supposedly planted by California’s most famous conversationist John Muir. Ike’s landlord, LaVonne Mullin, has been eager to expand and upgrade the restaurant.
The sustainable theme is practiced throughout Ike’s: Leftovers are collected by a compost guy who feeds the scraps to farm animals, and the used cooking grease is collected by a biodiesel producer. To-go containers and cutlery are biodegradable and recyclable.
Ike’s restaurant is certified by the Green Restaurant Association for its sustainable practices.
The mom-and-pop restaurant has grown to a staff of 13 people since it opened in 2001, but the restaurant is still run family style. Ike cooks part-time, Adrienne sometimes waits tables, and the couple’s 9-year-old son Jezra helps his dad makes cornbread and biscuits on weekends. The couple also has two younger daughters.
The restaurant’s staff is an eclectic bunch: The longtime dishwasher was a pastor. “God sent him to work for us,” jokes Adrienne.
Ike’s dream is to take the entire staff on a “field trip” to New Orleans, as he puts it, showing them famed restaurants such as Antoin’s, Arnaud’s and Commander’s Palace, where chefs Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse launched their careers.
Ike’s favorite phrase comes from Prudhomme, and he hopes it sums up his talents: “When the taste changes with every bite and the last bite is as good as the first, that’s cajun and that’s Louisiana cooking.”