An Interview With Jeff Dobkin & Jason Coulston of Hidden Kitchen
You might remember Hidden Kitchen, the spectacular but clandestine restaurant experiment that a foursome of aspiring restauranteurs (Jeff Dobkin; his wife, Julie Thompson-Dobkin; Holly Roberts; and her husband, Jason Coulston) opened up a few nights a week in borrowed space at The Rooster Cafe in Costa Mesa. It was just a temporary home for it. Since they left almost exactly a year ago, they've been looking for a permanent space to resurrect their project.
I recently checked in with Jeff Dobkin and Jason Coulston to get a progress update and to chat.
OC Weekly: So can you give us any hints on where the Hidden Kitchen will find a permanent home?
Jeff Dobkin: One of the challenges we are currently confronting is finding a neighborhood space that people can tuck into for a nice, relaxing meal. Costa Mesa doesn't have as many of these types of spots (as say San Francisco) and for us (Julie, Jason, Holly and myself) the feel of the new space is really important. No corporate space is going to work for us and this is limiting our choices.
In addition, the prices in the market haven't really come down to a level that we feel reflects the current market conditions (I kind of sound like I know what I am talking about, don't I?...but don't let me fool you).
OC Weekly: Are you considering other O.C. cities?
Jeff Dobkin: We are mostly looking at the Costa Mesa and possibly Newport areas. We want it to be our general neighborhood for the location.
Costa Mesa has the diversity that we want both from the population standpoint and the possible locations.
OC Weekly: You guys all have daytime jobs. You are a radiologist, your wife Julie is a neurologist, and Holly and Jason have their own business. On top of all this, you have Thompkin Cellars. How do you have the energy?
Jeff Dobkin: As for the energy thing...you don't live with us! Seriously though, all of our projects are fun, and we get a charge from them that gets us through the workday. Nothing more fun than hanging out with friends/people who appreciate the same things in life as we do. Having said that, it can be a bit of a drain at times, but in general the positives way outweigh the negatives.
OC Weekly: For your Hidden Kitchen concept you chose to keep it simple, with a reasonably priced prix fixe centered on two main entrees. Will we be seeing a continuation of this?
Jeff Dobkin: For the new HK, we will probably do something similar but maybe along the lines of a "Blue Plate Special" with no choices (that would vary from week to week) in combination with a larger selection of smaller plates that would also change frequently.
OC Weekly: What are your plans for the menu?
Jason Coulston: I can pipe in regarding food.
Ultimately, the menu will reflect the space. One concept revolved mostly around a wine bar model and service was designed to cater directly to by-the-glass eating. We wanted to expand our cheese and charcuterie programs and offer smaller plates that could be paired purposfully to wine eaten in sequence.
Here are some ideas;
Caramelized Onion, Bacon, Gruyere, Thyme
House Cured in Olive Oil, Green Beans, Soft-Cooked Hen Egg, Olives
Rillette, Prune, Baguette, Mustard Cream, Puckled Baby Carrot
Sauteed Torchon, Pickled Shallot Tartar Sauce, Local Mache
Roasted, Toasts, Sea Salt, Parsley/Radish Salad
Frisee, Chive Sauce, Brioche
Bacon & Eggs
Slow-Roasted Pork Belly, Soft Scrambled Eggs, Sauteed Apple
If we can find a cozy restaurant space with a neighborhood bistro kind of vibe, I think the menu will be set up differently. The food might feel similar but will be presented differently for a more traditional ala carte dinner experience. A chalk board will probably be involved, and we're committed to making as much as we can "in-house". That would include pickles, preserves, condiments, pates, farce, vinegars and so forth.
OC Weekly: What did you learn about your previous HK experiment? For example, what worked better than others? What ideas will you repeat and what would you not do again (if any)?
Jeff Dobkin: From my standpoint, and this would be the basics to anyone in the business I am sure, the greatest thing I learned was an appreciation for the amount of work that it takes to run a restaurant, whether you are a server, dishwasher, chef or owner.
Way more work than I could have imagined (all of my friends in the business will chime in with a "I told you so").
I think that what really worked was simply bringing really solid, unfussy food with good wine to people....not rocket science, but lacking a bit in the OC.
The things that really were hard for a small place to deal with were large parties of people (8 or more). Would probably not accomodate more than 6 per party at a new place.
Would probably try to do more "theme" oriented meals, to turn people on to what is out there in the food world.
One of the frustrating things for me is that local restaurants don't want to experiment more. Part of the fun and part of the job is educating people, palate wise, with regard to food and wine. It should be fun...maybe an adventure
OC Weekly: Along that line, where are you guys eating these days? What restaurant/eatery/taco stand (local or anywhere really) would you say is your favorite at the moment?
Jeff Dobkin: Well, as far as eating, we put a wood burning oven in our back yard and I'm really digging the pizzas that are coming out of there every Sunday.
We also really like the whole pig that is coming out of our La Caja China in the backyard.
The food scene down here is really depressing for me actually. Just came back from San Francisco....and well, they have food!
Jason Coulston: I'm really obsessed with Langer's Deli at the moment. I can barely go more than a week without making the trek to 7th & Alvarado in Los Angeles. The purist in me orders hand-cut pastrami on rye, but Holly won't order anything but their famous #19.
Locally I'm a champion of the pizzas at the newly opened Il Dolce. I saw your piece on it. I think they're getting better and better. The mis en place prep list must read like war and peace because they've got a ton if pies on the menu, but I haven't had a loser yet. The roasted vegetable pizza and the sausage with caramelized onion are rock stars. Just be sure to order well done for extra char on the bottom.
Catch us at SOS's Taco Night event. I think we're doing something with pork belly, apples, and chile and I'm sure there will be plenty of Thompkin Cellars wine on hand.