On the Line: Alexander Dale of SeaLegs Wine Bar, Part One
Chef Alexander Dale and I met the morning of Valentine's Day to review his questionnaire (and we thank him greatly for starting his day earlier than usual to meet). In the unusually peaceful wine bar, we covered topics that included his connection to Villa Nova and his juice obsession.
You find culinary inspiration based on the weather. Any ideas for the recent rainfall and dip in temperatures, assuming it continues?
We always run a lot of specials at SeaLegs, so I take a look at the weather every week when planning specials. I'm not going to run a ceviche if it's 45-degrees outside. It doesn't make sense. I brought back mussels and clams a couple of weeks ago. I love the look on customers' faces when the smell and aromatics from the garlic, shallot and leeks hit them.
Favorite meal growing up:
Linguine alle vongole from Lupo D'Abruzzo, my cousin's restaurant in Buena Park.
Most undervalued ingredient:
Salt. It makes or breaks a dish. Salt is what brings everything together.
Where does the restaurant name come from?
The "legs" on the wine glass, and SeaLegs is by the sea.
We learned your grandfather was a founder of Villa Nova. How did that influence your decision to be a chef?
I've just about always worked in the food industry; it's what I know. It has always influenced me and led me straight to my decision in becoming a chef.
Where was your most recent meal?
Broadway By Amar Santana. I had the Brussels sprouts, albacore, green tea soba noodles, mussels and asparagus risotto.
One food you can't live without:
Pork belly ramen from Ramen Yamadaya in Costa Mesa. I love it! My good friend, Vince, opened that place up. He was the chef when they first opened in Culver City. I remember him showing me how he makes all the stocks. He had 15 stockpots down the line, and they're going for 24-hours.
Best culinary tip for the home cook:
Sharpen your knife! Whenever I'm at anyone else's house cooking, I'll grab their knife to cut something, and it's always so dull. Don't be afraid of the blade! The closer you keep your hand to the knife, the less likely you're going to cut yourself.
You're making breakfast; what are you having?
Juice! I use kale, green apple, spinach, celery, parsley, ginger and pineapple. I make it almost every morning. This starts my day off feeling great.
Where did you work with Jimmy Martinez, and what did he teach you?
I worked with Jimmy at BOA in Santa Monica. Jimmy taught me how to run a fine-dining, high-volume kitchen.
What is your beverage of choice?
I really like Golden Road Brewery and Saint Archers Brewery. As for wine, I love Duckhorn Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Obsidian Ridge, Heitz Celler and Martha's Vineyard.
Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
Orange County has the best food diversity. I love the fact that I can get bun bo hue in Little Saigon for lunch, and go to Studio at Montage Laguna Beach for dinner. I've been eating at my favorite taco spot, Taqueria El Perico, since I was a kid. It's walking distance from Playground, Lola Gaspar and Little Sparrow in Santa Ana. You can't beat having a cheeseburger at Cassidy's Bar and Grill at the Cannery in Newport Beach.
Your best recent food find:
Garden Grove is always a good place to go exploring. There are so many great Vietnamese restaurants. I don't want to butcher their names, but I know them by location. I love ordering duck soup; the stock is amazing.
Your earliest food memory:
Growing up in the Villa Nova restaurant, I was always surrounded by great food. As a child, I used to love making sandwiches on Villa Nova's fresh bread in the afternoons when I got out of school. I used to run in while they were rolling the dough, grab the proscuitto and salami, and be chased out of the kitchen by an older Italian lady. They didn't want my grimy hands all over the food.
What is your culinary work experience?
I started at the Crab Cooker in Newport Beach, working the fish market in high school with all of my buddies. It was such a fun place to work. I then worked for Wolfgang Puck Catering in Los Angeles, doing award shows and private events. Thereafter, I learned a lot about high-volume, fine dining at BOA in Santa Monica. My culinary work experience at 320 Main in Seal Beach is where Jason and Rebecca [Schiffer] really let my creativity flourish. And from there, I went on to open SeaLegs Wine Bar with Alicia [Whitney] and Lisa [Nonemaker], which has been an amazing ride.
What is your favorite meal of the day?
Dinner is always my favorite (on my days off). I make a point to always go to dinner.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten:
Sautéed crickets. Felipe, one of the cooks at BOA, made them for me one day with sautéed garlic and shallot. They . . .were crunchy.
Favorite places to eat (besides your own):
I love Bear Flag, A Restaurant and Market, and Cafe Lotus; these are by my house. If I'm going to drive, I love visiting 320 Main, Broadway By Amar Santana and 370 Common in Laguna, and Charlie Palmer. They are some of my favorites around town.
Ferran Adria, Thomas Keller and Tory McPhail are some of my favorites. I really respect what they do.
Weirdest customer request (and did you do it?):
These days, everyone has a gluten allergy or something wrong with them, so I'm not too shocked anymore by random requests. I have had regular customers order steaks for their dogs at a couple of places I have worked at in the past. That was always pretty amusing. Recently, we had a customer walk over and ask me to make her what I was eating for dinner (spaghetti squash, grape tomatoes, arugula and shrimp with smoked paprika) because it smelled so good, and she didn't see it on the menu. I made it just for her.