by Sara Liner / photos by Ree Slocum
Many chefs and ardent home cooks dream to own a little bistro where the focus of the menu can be placed entirely on the seasonality, locality and integrity of its ingredients. For Liz and Kelvin Jacobs, it was a dream over twenty years in the making, but the precise concept of their restaurant, Wild Fish, came to be by complete accident or, for those of us more romantically inclined, by many acts of fate and faith.
Kelvin is an award-winning chef who has built his career championing small farmers and independent fish mongers. Liz is a linguist, illustrator and passionate food writer, whose culinary pedigree has its roots in New Orleans, Portland and Italy. The two met and fell in love in Devon, England, where their shared passions fueled their partnership in a critically acclaimed inn and restaurant. Liz ran the front of the house, while Kelvin helmed the kitchen.
When the global recession hit in 2008 and food prices soared, while discretionary income shrank, independent restaurants suffered worldwide. Restaurants famously live or die by razor-thin profit margins, and mom and pop operations either adapted or perished. It was an opportunity for Kelvin and Liz to downsize from being an inn and restaurant, and start anew, as a bistro. An artist really just wants to focus on their art, and who are chefs if not artists?
In a leap of faith, they packed everything up and moved from the U.K. to the Mendocino Coast, without the safety net of deep pockets or outside investors. “Kelvin’s favorite memories were of his time spent on holiday in California, and I am a U.S. citizen,” explains Liz. “We didn’t have much money to do research in person, but we did have Google.”
One day after months of searching for the right spot, they stumbled across the petite restaurant with a million-dollar ocean view that would become Wild Fish, whilst stretching their legs in the parking lot of the Little River Market.
Kelvin peeped in the windows and knew it was the perfect place. “I was dubious at first, this little space adjacent to a post office?” recalls Liz. “But then we could really see it, and we put in our application.” The landlords had several suitors for the space, but liked Kelvin and Liz, and granted them the lease. Wild Fish opened on Thanksgiving Day of 2011.
Kelvin and Liz are deeply committed to showcasing seafood local to the Mendocino and West Coast: sablefish, salmon, rock cod, oysters, and mussels, whose source point are always given on the menu. Noyo Harbor, just ten miles north, is featured heavily. Liz and Kelvin have been given a special commendation as “Local Seafood Heroes” by the Fort Bragg Groundfish Association, an organization committed to sustainable fishing and to advocating for the rights of independent fishermen who work out of the Noyo Harbor. Fishermen like Scott Hockett of Noyo Fish Company, makes deliveries to Wild Fish up to three times a week, often delivering live fish to the kitchen door.
The seafood isn’t the only menu item sourced locally—the produce for the starters and entree accompaniments is provided by Gowan Batist of Fortunate Farms, and their olive oil and wines come from the surrounding appellations of Anderson Valley and Redwood Valley. Accordingly, their menu is subject to change, depending on what looks best on the market that week. No hocus-pocus or gimmickry. The Wild Fish team put forth simple, exquisite food that shows a masterful restraint and showcases the character and quality of each lovingly sourced item on the plate.
Kelvin has fallen in love with a lesser known local delicacy—sablefish—a sumptuous, oily whitefish, which is served with the skin perfectly crisped with blackening seasoning, the flesh underneath perfectly tender. Like the sablefish itself, the accompanying creamy polenta (a nod to Liz’s time in Italy) and braised Easter egg radishes, sugar snap peas, and mustard greens served with brown butter sauce, are modest, yet delectable. A cedar-plank roasted chili pepper rock cod is presented whole, stuffed with aromatics and served with jasmine rice, mustard greens and a red Thai curry sauce. Half the joy of fish is its texture, and there is something delightfully intimate and rustic about getting a whole fish in a restaurant, the way one usually only does at backyard barbecues.
The main courses are the stars, but the other courses are enticing in their own right. Shaved asparagus salad with mixed baby lettuces, tossed with a tarragon-buttermilk dressing, is enlivened with edible flowers and bright herbs. Yorkville Cellars 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, which gives all of the citrusy and mineral notes one expects from that varietal, is a nice pairing. For dessert: sticky toffee pudding with pecans, and lemon pot de crème give a nod to the proprietors’ time in Europe. Wild Fish is a must for anyone coming to the Mendocino Coast in hopes of truly exquisite cuisine.