Matthew Biancaniello, known for putting food into alcohol, is busy foraging as he prepares for the summer opening of Mon Li, which might serve alcoholic oysters, snail beer, and goose barnacles.
We’re on the five-acre site of Malibu’s Calamigos Beach Club. Biancaniello, an L.A. mixologist who’s attracted a fanatical following by making drinks that are as delicious as they are beautiful, is opening an omakase restaurant within the Beach Club this summer. So he’s taking advantage of what’s growing around him.
“One of the snacks I’m working on is an uni hand roll but with nasturtium pods instead of nori,” say Biancaniello, who plans to infuse passion fruit into salmon roe for that hand roll.
There’s a wealth of cactus at the Beach Club, and Biancaniello is making cactus tequila and developing salads with cactus flowers and cactus fruit. Cactus flowers could also show up in gazpachos for alcoholic oysters, one of Biancaniello’s specialties. There’s also strikingly bitter mugwort at the Beach Club, which might work in an ice cream.
Biancaniello’s 12-seat restaurant, Mon Li (named after the wife of Calamigos owner Glen Gerson), is scheduled to open July 5. Mon Li is about the land, not just at the Beach Club but also at the much larger Calamigos Guest Ranch about ten miles away, where Biancaniello might grow crops in the future. It’s also about what’s next to Biancaniello’s cabin in Topanga Canyon, where he’s grabbing wild watercress and wild water mint out of the creek. He’s grown his own parsley and mint in that creek. He just threw Cuban oregano seeds and red shiso seeds into the water.
Mon Li is also about the Pacific Ocean, a quick stroll away from the restaurant. Biancaniello loves foraging and recently found goose barnacles, some of which he steamed with wine and garlic. He’s having the goose barnacles tested to make sure they’re safe to serve.
Mon Li will offer what Biancaniello’s calling a 12-course “liquid tasting menu.” The restaurant will be open on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, with two seatings a night. Guests will start in a courtyard where Biancaniello will be behind a grill, cooking items like fish, mushrooms, and vegetables that will be paired with a welcome cocktail. This will be the first course.
Then it’s off to a 12-seat counter, where Biancaniello will cook with induction burners. He’ll serve ten small courses of alcoholic sips, the equivalent of two-and-half-to-three drinks. There could be, for example, a progressive Caesar salad in five different vermouths.
“You drink the romaine, you drink the radicchio, you drink the Parmesan, you drink the anchovy, and the last one is crouton,” Biancaniello says.
He has learned about making Native American-style, hops-free, herbal beers from Pascal Baudar, a self-described “professional forager” who’s written two books. Baudar will be visiting soon to help Biancaniello create a snail beer. In addition to the liquid courses, Biancaniello will serve four or five “substantial” dishes because he knows how annoying it is to be hungry after you’ve had a tasting menu.
“I’m half-greek and half-Italian,” he says. “A lot of Mon Li will incorporate the peasant food I grew up eating with my Greek grandmother.”
Biancaniello’s playing around with spanakopita, using cornmeal instead of phyllo dough.
“It’s like a spanakopita cupcake,” he says.
He’s also trying out a dish that features cucumbers marinated with every flavor of a Greek salad, but you only see cucumbers on the plate, and he plans on serving warm alcoholic soups, like an onion soup with Krogstad aquavit, smoked garlic, onion juice, black truffles, gruyere, parsley, and mussels.
Biancaniello, who’s getting help from Calamigos chef Ricardo Morales and bringing in chefs he’s worked with before to assist in R&D, is putting together a sandwich with dehydrated blood oranges, avocados, smoked bananas, and maybe even the goose barnacles he found. He’s making his own lavender-infused goat-milk bread, which he could serve with roasted heirloom garlic. For dessert, he’s thinking Russian potatoes covered in caramel. He likes the idea of combining pinecones and strawberries in an eggnog milkshake.
Throughout dinner, there will be different waters, infused with ingredients like Marrakech lime, yuzu, bergamot, Meyer lemon, parsley, watermelon, or assorted vegetables. Biancaniello’s also planning a chaga mushroom tea that tastes like a vanilla cold brew. For the final course, guests will go outside to a patio garden with 12 seats around a fire pit. There, they’ll get the last pour of the tasting menu, maybe some nocino made with Malibu green walnuts and dehydrated toyon berries that smell like cherries. Guests can linger while they listen to the ocean. They can order something from Biancaniello’s collection of hard-to-find spirits. Whenever they leave, they’ll exit through an outdoor corridor that bursts with the colors of different cherry tomatoes. He's having Geri Miller of The Cook’s Garden in Venice plant the tomatoes as well as some herbs on his patio.
“This is kind of phase one,” Biancaniello says. “If all goes well, I’ll start planting citrus trees and I’m going to have a greenhouse to grow rare stuff. I’ve got 100,000 bees coming in two weeks, and I’m going to start doing my own honey.”
Biancaniello started bartending in 2008, at the Hollywood Roosevelt’s Library Bar because he needed a job.
“The only way I got the job is because I knew the manager through yoga and she gave me a chance,” he says.
He remembers, on his first night at work, having to ask what was in a Cosmopolitan. But he was a quick study and knew what tasted good. He would go to the Santa Monica Farmers Market every Wednesday, something he still continues to do, and find fresh ingredients for cocktails. His crop-to-cup approach took off, and what was previously a quiet bar became a hot spot. And Biancaniello became known as L.A.’s cocktail chef.
Biancaniello’s skill at putting food into drinks made him a coveted bartender. He went on to make cocktails at Plan Check. He mixed things up at Roy Choi’s Commissary and Pot Bar; the latter of which is where he created an uni cocktail, an arugula cocktail, a mushroom cocktail, and a walnut cocktail. He wrote a book, Eat Your Drink, and has been working on a second book that’s directly tied to the kind of things he’ll offer at Mon Li, like banana persimmon rum.
“You’ll see corn in the book, and I’ll show you five things to do with corn,” he says. “Three are drinks, one’s an infusion, one is food.”
Biancaniello has also found time to do a series of pop-ups at bars and restaurants like Cliff’s Edge. His latest pop-up is Wednesday nights at Ysabel. He’s also making drinks for three Frida Kahlo-inspired dinners with chef Roberto Cortez on May 8 to 10. Plus, he’s doing the drinks for the reopening of Venice’s Roosterfish bar.
Biancaniello’s really busy, but he likes to ride the wave when he has momentum on his side. Before Ysabel, he had never gone past 12 weeks at any pop-up, but he’s done 26 weeks at Ysabel and is still going strong. The demand for his drinks is clearly there.
I visit Biancaniello at Ysabel the day after I see him in Malibu. The West Hollywood restaurant doesn’t open until 6 p.m., but the cocktail chef’s fans start streaming in at 5:30 p.m. because they know he doesn’t mind. The 24-seat bar is mostly full by 6 p.m.. By 6:10 p.m., it’s standing room only.
Regulars, including a guest who’s been to this pop-up more than 20 times, ask Biancaniello to make them something special. The cocktail chef, wearing a lavender fedora, pours drinks with cactus tequila, ogo seaweed whisky, lobster gin, rhubarb-and-morels St-Germain, and his new Dolin blanc vermouth featuring unripened blueberries, plums, and apricots. I’m impressed by how he balances the umami and savory notes of the ogo seaweed whisky with the sweetness of agave and tomato in a drink that also has lemon balm and nasturtiums. I’m dazzled by a gorgeous drink with the cactus tequila, strawberry, sage, and ginger, garnished with pink and purple cornflowers.
Biancaniello then makes stinging nettle sours and talks about how he’s started putting citrus peels and pits along with juice into cocktails, which results in “amazing creaminess and bitterness.” He makes ume plum Old-Fashioneds. He grabs edible flower garnishes like chrysanthemums, elderflowers, sage flowers, lavender, borage, and cilantro blossoms. He gives tastes of acorn squash juice to customers who maybe don’t want too much of a buzz. He puts together small bites of wonderful food like a cara cara and blood orange salad with allspice liqueur, very green olive oil, and arugula blossoms.
Many guests spend three to four hours at Ysabel when Biancaniello is behind the bar. One couple at the bar on the night I visit shares nine drinks. People keep coming back week after week because he always has something new.
He know things will be a little different at his restaurant, where the tasting menu might range from $125 to $175 and include the option of supplements like a $100 shot of an extremely rare mezcal. He’s figuring out how to price the 25-year-old Pappy Van Winkle he has.
“There, everything has to be perfect,” he says of Mon Li. “Here’s, it’s OK if I fail.”
What he means is that a pop-up allows him to experiment a lot on the fly. He can try anything once. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. On the flip side, he wants Mon Li to be a place where he can resurrect drinks and bites that he thought were great but that he might have only served one night at at a pop-up. He’s also willing to customize courses for guests who have special requests or restrictions.
“Everything I’ve done in the last nine and a half years is going into this,” Biancaniello says.
Having a restaurant at the Calamigos Beach Club feels like fate for Biancaniello, who often goes on outdoor adventures with his four-year-old twin boys, Kai and Coleman. Even when they were only two, Biancaniello and his boys would hike Solstice Canyon in Malibu, go down to the Beach Club, and marvel at the colorful nasturtiums by the creek, where Biancaniello also found sorrel and bay leaves. One day, they realized there was a tunnel connecting the creek to the ocean and the boys went crazy.
At that time, Biancaniello had no idea that the Gerson family that owned Calamigos would later approach him about making drinks for the Beach Club. That conversation eventually led to Mon Li.
It’s just another chapter in Biancaniello’s unlikely story. Before he started bartending, he worked in advertising, animal training, and underwater film. He had done all sorts of things to sustain himself, but he had avoided booze until he needed to make some money and his friend from yoga offered him a bartending gig.
“My mom was a hardcore alcoholic growing up,” he says. “Alcohol was kind of the last thing anybody would think I would be around. But a year and a half into bartending, I was making this drink for a woman who was taking pictures and sipping it and savoring it. She looked up at me.”
At that moment, Biancaniello had a revelation.
“Oh my God, I’ve unconsciously been rescripting my relationship toward alcohol, making it something that’s beautiful, something that you savor,” he says. “And since then, every single destructive memory of alcohol has been gone. I used to not even be able to smell it on someone’s breath. That’s how dramatic it was. Gone.”
So now, he’s celebrating the wonders of blending alcohol with food. There’s so much potential for him at the Beach Club, including a speakeasy-like cellar space he could use for appointment-only tastings and classes like the Airbnb Experiences he’s done before. The space currently smells like candy cap mushrooms, which Biancaniello is storing down there and putting into whisky and angostura bitters.
At his Ysabel pop-up, Biancaniello talks about how you can add more layers to alcohol than you can to food. His customers are rapt as he gives them little details about his forthcoming restaurant while keeping things mysterious. His manager, who’s drinking at Ysabel on the night I visit, hasn’t even seen the Mon Li space yet.
“I want the restaurant to push me to do things that I haven’t done before,” says Biancaniello, who’s recently been using dried purple sage from Solstice Canyon and two different mints from his Topanga Canyon creek for his own version of Fernet.
The bounty of wild ingredients available to him will offer him constant inspiration.
“It’s insane,” he says as he looks around the Calamigos Beach Club. “And it’s all ours. I’ve got a lot of picking to do.”
Mon Li, 26025 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu