By Christina Waters
Not since my last trip to Italy three years ago have I tasted such inspired pizza. It was from Mentone, the new Aptos restaurant created by David Kinch of the three-star Michelin Manresa. Mentone’s menu is Italian-French spun through Kinch’s own California vision.
“The name is the Italian version of the French town’s name,” Kinch says.
After phoning in our order, I parked in front of Mentone and a masked man placed a well-filled brown shopping bag in my trunk. It turns out to be Kinch himself. What a surprise to see the chef, whose career I’ve followed from the Sent Sovi days to his recent cooking tour through France, manning the takeout.
That takeout took my breath away. The portable Negronis—a perfect balance of Campari, carpano antica and Nolets gin—took me straight back to Florence. A Caesar salad-for-two of chicories bathed in an addictive anchovy dressing, dazzling. But the pizzas were nothing short of transformative. From paper-thin crust to sensuous toppings dusted with red peppers and drizzles of pesto, the pies were sensational—wood-fired Pizza Margherita topped with basil and Pizza Formaggi with a thick melt of four cheeses. The smoky aromas perfumed the brilliant toppings. Kinch threw in samples of a house appetizer of fire-roasted eggplant seasoned with calabrian chili, fresh mint and grated bottarga that was spicy and silken. Kinch has transformed pizza into a special occasion entree. The curbside pickup was smooth, and the pizza was just as delicious the next day.
Even before this era of pandemic—which has made the opening of any new venture seem highly improbable, if not impossible—Mentone (pronounced “men-tawn-eh.”) was the most anticipated restaurant opening in Santa Cruz County in years. Kinch has been steadily building his brand since he opened Manresa in Los Gatos in 2002, and the restaurant earned its first two Michelin stars in 2007 (it was upgraded to three in 2016). He had been looking for a new restaurant space in downtown Santa Cruz for a few years. Bywater, the more casual, New Orleans-inspired restaurant he opened in 2016, is also located in Los Gatos.
“I wanted to be on this side of the hill,” says Kinch, who has lived in Santa Cruz for 22 years. “I like expanding our reach. I think we can fill a need.”
While his heart belongs to the Central Coast, Kinch was inspired by the French/Italian Riviera and the town of Menton. This region was part of the Republic of Genoa until 1860, when it became part of France—hence the co-mingled cuisines.
“It reminds me of our stretch of coastline,” Kinch says of the azure European coast discovered while visiting friends on culinary visits and cooking odysseys. Anyone who’s visited the South of France, or the Ligurian coast between Nice and Genoa, can understand exactly why he would be taken by the bold, sun-drenched flavors of the region. After all, this is the place that gave us focaccia, salame and pesto. Far from the concept-intensive world of Manresa, this Kinch eatery is casual enough to highlight pizza—fueled by Kinch’s inventiveness and the freshly milled flour from Manresa Bread, the bakery branch of Manresa powered by superstar baker Avery Ruzick.
Kinch’s concepts can be subtle, and tend to defy categorization. But the seasons and the geographical setting are invariably folded into his menus. While prepping the restaurant last summer, he showed me a glamorous shot of actors Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni at the height of their cinematic fame and beauty. “That’s on our brand,” he said with obvious pleasure. Two film stars, one French, one Italian. That’s the sizzle Kinch wants for Mentone, accessible and appealing.
Anthony Bourdain once described Kinch’s cooking as “wildly creative … beautifully presented and surprisingly minimalist—very, very tasty.” Kinch keeps living up to that assessment.
After learning everything he could in top kitchens in New York, San Francisco and Europe, Kinch opened a small, Catalan-inspired dining room in Saratoga in 1995 called Sent Sovi, which is where I first tasted his cooking. Then came Manresa, where the Michelin stars began to accumulate, as did international culinary guest chef gigs and James Beard awards, including Best Chef: Pacific in 2010. Born in Louisiana, Kinch opened Bywater as a spicy love letter to the Cajun and Creole foods of his New Orleans roots. But now his imagination has zeroed in on the Mediterranean climate of his current home.
There are a lot of reasons Kinch enjoys living here. “It’s close to the ocean, it’s got the university and all the activity that goes with that,” he says. “I’ve lived in Manhattan and in San Francisco. I don’t want a big city anymore. I need a separation between my personal and professional life.”
Food is the focus of his life, and it always was. “I fell into that rabbit hole early on, and pretty hard. I’m always curious. And I’m not afraid to learn.”
But even in non-pandemic times, Kinch says he needs to recharge a few times a year. “Especially as I get older,” says the 58-year-old chef. “For me, it’s always a beach. I relax, surf, sleep a lot, have a rum drink at two in the afternoon. It helps to reorganize my priorities. I try to do that twice a year.”
And his favorite thing to do is having a great restaurant meal. “Fine dining—that’s where the ideas are,” he says.
Curbside pickup is available at Mentone from 3-7pm Wed-Sat. 174 Aptos Village Way (at Trout Gulch Road) mentonerestaurant.com.