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[whitespace] Karl Cook
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Cook's Classic: Almar Grill co-owner Karl Cook oversees a Mediterranean-inspired menu.

Grill Crazy

O'mei's seasoned veterans fine-tune the new Almar Grill on the West Side

By Christina Waters

IT'S NOT LIKE they don't know any better. After all, the entrepreneurs of West Side's new Almar Grill (lodged near Safeway in the slot of the late Aldo's Cafe) are a couple of seasoned veterans. That would be Roger Grigsby, owner and conceptualist of O'mei, and Karl Cook, O'mei's executive chef for 16 years. Essentially they just couldn't resist. "We had been working on several different restaurant concepts for a while," Cook told to me last week. "But then this space came along, and we realized that what the West Side needed was a breakfast place." Well, one thing led to another and the breakfast quickly evolved into lunch, and just last week tapas and dinner menus were added to the ambitious grill listing.

Starting at 8am, Almar Grill serves up classic and designer egg dishes--bacon and eggs, herbed polenta bread with sausage gravy. "There's a Florentine scramble, a Greek scramble," Cook adds, "and all the scrambles are offered with tofu." Cook, who may have to clone himself in order to keep up with two restaurants, emphasizes that Almar Grill is no temple of cuisine. "There are no white tablecloths, no froufrou--just simple, straightforward good food."

Currently both Cook and Grigsby take turns in the kitchen fine-tuning the new eatery. "Roger knows hundreds of great soups," Cook says. And those recipes turn up in the midday soup and salad specials. "We really wanted to do something that was affordable. We have fresh soup daily, and a half-sandwich-plus-cup-of-soup combo for $3.95. I wanted people to have a place to go after surfing for a great burger and fries."

Yes, Almar Grill does make a great burger, and serves it with those incredible mala pickles from O'mei, plus aioli. Dialed into grill standards--chops, burgers, steaks, shrimp skewers--the new place adds a bit of Mediterranean spin. The tapas bar, running during happy hours from 4 to 6pm, offers flavors of Spain and North Africa in plates of roasted almonds, fava beans with cumin and chili, and "lots of stuff on skewers." And don't be surprised if some of those Mediterranean ideas arrive with an Asian accent. "We're using the chile raisin sauce from O'mei in our salsa," Cook confessed. "We can't help it."

Part of the reason they can't is because Grigsby and Cook are simpatico in the kitchen. The two chef/owners have worked smoothly for a decade and a half in one of the busiest kitchens on the Central Coast. "Roger and I get along real well," Cook says. "We're both kind of crazy," he laughs. The Grill is anything but crazy. Instantly appealing, it's infused with lots of morning light and smartly decorated with new slate gray tables and crisp artwork. A grateful public is beginning to check out diner-friendly dishes like Italian sausage sandwiches, panzanella bread salad, chicken club sandwiches and homemade split pea soup, the kind you crave on wet, chilly days. The long counter space is a perfect place to sample this no-nonsense and highly affordable grill menu. Almar Grill serves breakfast from 8am, "until around 1pm," lunch from 11am, and dinner starts at 5pm, every day except Monday. It's located at 841 Almar Ave., Santa Cruz (420.0114).

Talk to Me!

It's nice to be back--back in the country after Christmas in Italy and New Year's in Switzerland, and back with my food column in this highly hyped New Year. Please let me hear from you about your favorite wines, snacks, coffee shops--anything remotely culinary. Email me! Send me your latest food discoveries, passions and peeves. I'm online at cwaters@metcruz.com day and night, waiting to hear about your new chef, new bakery, menu change or hot new product. You tell me, and I'll tell Metro Santa Cruz readers.

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From the January 17-24, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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