Ukiah's Unassuming Food Find
by David Ballantine
photos by Bobby Cochran
Over the past year, Cultivo Restaurant has become a central part of the thriving restaurant culture of Standley Street in Ukiah. More than once I've arrived at the restaurant to find hungry diners lined up outside, huddling under patio heaters and sitting on the curb, choosing to wait for a table rather than seeking out a less-crowded alternative in the neighborhood. Fortunately, if there is a table open, friendly staff work fast to seat you. And from the lines I've seen, I'm not the only one who wants one.
The translation for Cultivo, says Chef Fernando Plazola, is “to cultivate.” When looking for a place to build their restaurant, he and wife Ashleigh thought hard on the name and its meaning. Cultivo, to Fernando, refers not only to the local foods that are essential to his culinary creations, with their California Modern Cuisine leanings, but also to the cultivating of their restaurant within the social garden of this community. Once the popular eatery Saucy, with a following all their own, the Plazolas kept the pizza and on-tap wine and beer, and then added the new heart and soul of Cultivo, Fernando’s twist on “farm to fork.” Locals are now treated to entrees and fine locally vintaged bottled wine in an updated interior.
Initially looking for a site to build their dream from scratch, Fernando and Ashleigh settled on reinventing Saucy’s local appeal, but with a restaurant that had its own following. Two stories high, with a smoky glass front that is almost as tall as the restaurant is deep, the space includes a smaller version of balcony akin to the famous Postrio in San Francisco, owned by world renowned chef Wolfgang Puck, under whom Fernando worked for several years before leaving to design his own menus. The interior, furnished in rustic chic, features a ten-seat table made of a 3” live-edge redwood slab. Patio seating is available for lunch and balmy evenings.
With subdued lighting at night, there are warm southern exposures to light daytime dining. The walls are a muted assortment of greens, tans, and grays that are inviting and calming at the same time. Once the food arrives, however, the scenery fades as the five senses converge. First, delighted sight responds to artistic articulations of food placement, which is quickly surpassed by smell and taste; then texture with the soft internal ahhs that emanate of their own volition, culminating in a singular expression of pleasure.
When talking about Cultivo's pizzas, Fernando says that he couldn’t part with the beautiful Mugnaini Pizza Oven left by the previous owner. “You know, it’s a $20,000 pizza oven. I couldn’t let it go, it’s a really nice oven.” Despite his admiration of the oven, when it came to the menu Fernando felt that, while he would continue to have a generous offering of pizzas, they would not be the dominant feature. His entrees speak for themselves and come from a rich body of experience that is evident in the preparation.
On a recent evening, wanting a nice meal before going to a local music production, my wife and I found ourselves in the warm, inviting entry for the first time. Cultivo, this night, was crowded with three large parties upstairs, but the host found a table on the first floor right away and was able to serve us in a more than timely manner—Heritage Pork Chop with gnocchi, shallots, roasted broccolini topped with a delightful dried fruit compote for me and the Local Cod with Rancho Gordo Corona Beans, sun dried tomato pesto, and brussel sprouts for her. Worrying about the time became secondary to enjoying the heavenly flavours, one after another, on the plates before us. We left for the show but vowed to return, because meals like this are meant to be savored.
Return we did, every dish a new favorite. The Risotto with Shiitake Mushrooms is comfort food at its most elegant. But if you are listening to Fernando talk about his Hanger Steak in a Bordelaise Sauce and how “it almost melts in your mouth, you know?” he says with a big smile on his face, there is no question about adding it to the order. The steak was cooked to perfection, with puréed potatoes and roasted vegetables that were irresistible in the remnants of sauce.
The lunch menu could be mistaken for dinner entrées at any other restaurant. The only tell is the offerings come on fresh baked sourdough buns drizzled with garlic oil. Crispy Eggplant, Smoked Ducks Breast, and Spicy Fried Shrimp are not your common sandwich fare. Of course, the central bar with sumptuous pizzas and beer on tap are always at hand for a quick informal, yet delectable, bite with a friend.
The real surprise at Cultivo, however, is the cost of a meal. Says Fernando, “I want everyone to be able to enjoy my food.” The cost for one of his lavish spreads is a fraction of what you would pay at restaurants that offer similar pizzaz while missing the point on flavor. Finding Cultivo is on par with finding that rare vintage at a bargain before its reputation inflates its price out of reach.
When talking with Chef Fernando, it becomes clear that he eats, sleeps and breathes his restaurant. From Saturdays, where he can be found at the Ukiah Farmers Market picking out the freshest produce “at their seasonal peak,” to sourcing local sausages in Redwood Valley, he will still be in the kitchen at Cultivo six nights a week.
Fernando credits his mother first and foremost for his love of cooking. “She was a wonderful cook and she taught all my brothers and sisters to cook.” With nine children in the family, mealtime must have resembled the restaurant atmosphere he has chosen for his life’s work.
Living in Los Angeles as a young man, Fernando began his culinary journey working in an Italian restaurant, but it wasn’t long before he started expanding his repertoire, which led to cooking positions in San Jose and eventually San Francisco, where he attended the CCA (California Culinary Academy). “It was really fun because you get to study all the culinary arts in the world.” To enhance his tasting knowledge, he frequented the finer restaurants in San Francisco, a town known for its trendy, world class, fine dining experiences.
After graduating, Fernando landed his dream job working with Wolfgang Puck at the famed Postrio, with its edgy but elegant interiors, located in the Prescott Hotel just off Union Square in San Francisco. There, for four years, he worked with Puck, rubbing elbows with Hollywood and culinary luminaries like Jacques Pepin and Anthony Bourdain, while becoming immersed in the trendiest of California Cuisine.
After work one night, Fernando was having drinks at Zeki’s bar a few blocks down the street from Postrio. A friend excitedly told him that his brother in Larkspur was looking for a chef. At this point, Fernando was eager to design his own menus and run his own show. With little of his own money, his friend's brother offered Fernando a partnership based solely on his resume and charm. The restaurant did extremely well but suffered through the 2007 recession. After guiding the restaurant back to health, now without a partner, Fernando felt burned out running the whole show and recognized the need to move on.
Fernando continued his Culinary explorations in Guerneville, moving north to Santa Rosa, where he and Ashleigh acquired property. With Ashleigh’s parents living in Laytonville, it wasn’t long before they started considering options in Mendocino County. It was Ashleigh who suggested Ukiah, and Fernando fell in love with the place.
They sold their Santa Rosa property and bought a small farm on the outskirts of Ukiah, where they raise lamb and goats while growing vegetables that are often used in the restaurant. The long commute to Guerneville guided the decision to open their own restaurant in Ukiah. “This place has so much to offer,” says Fernando, “the wineries and fields. And it has a lot of people who like good food, and maybe they don’t want to drive to Healdsburg or San Francisco.”
After living in cities for so long, Fernando and Ashleigh seem to have settled nicely into the local rhythms of Ukiah. Fernando says people often come up to the kitchen and tell him that they are so amazed to have such wonderfully prepared food available in Ukiah. His goal realized, the fruits of his cultivation cannot be stated better than a few words from his own website—dishes that surprise, delight, and nourish.
Open Mon–Thu 11:30am–9:00pm, Fri–Sat 11:30am–10:00pm 108 West Standley Street Ukiah, CA, 95482
(707) 462-7007 | CultivoRestaurant.com
David Ballantine lives in Anderson Valley where he teaches high school students how to work with sharp objects, among other things.