The power couple ditch fine dining to focus on bistro food in rural California.
Per Se alums Daisy and Greg Ryan are really putting down roots in California’s Central Coast.
The couple recently bought a building in Los Alamos, where they’re converting the former Bell Street Farm restaurant into Bell’s. That new café, with bistro-inspired dishes like salads, sandwiches, handmade pasta, rotisserie chicken, steak frites and moule frites, is scheduled to open March 15 with lunch Thursday through Monday and dinner on Thursday through Saturday. There are plans to add breakfast in the future.
Between renovating the space, finalizing their menu and taking care of their 11-month-old son Henry, the Ryans have their hands full. But Daisy grew up about 20 minutes away from Los Alamos in the Santa Ynez Valley, which makes things easier. Moving back to this part of California means that her parents, who own the Eye of the Day garden design center in Carpinteria, can help with everything from buildout to babysitting. And anyway, now that Daisy and Greg have moved away from fine dining and New York, they’re pretty relaxed about how they’re doing things.
“The beauty of New York is that it makes you think, while you’re in it, that there’s no other place,” Greg says. “There’s nothing else. When you’re working in high-end dining, a Michelin-starred restaurant, you’re telling yourself and each other that there’s nobody doing what we’re doing. You’re insulated within the hospitality industry and within New York. It’s like, ‘Well, I could never leave, because there’s nothing outside of the world.’ And then you step out out and, oh, this is OK. I’ll find my way. I’ll figure it out.”
Daisy and chef Sarah Williams (who worked at Jean-Georges and also had gigs making high-end chocolate and cupcakes in New York) are collaborating in the Bell’s kitchen without worrying about formal titles for their roles. They’re planning dishes like a comforting and bright egg-salad sandwich with tomato jam on pain de mie from the beloved Bob’s Well Bread bakery down the street. They’re riffing on the “very simple idea of a house salad,” Daisy says. Think greens like butter lettuce and frisée alongside pickled red onion, preserved Meyer lemon, 18-month-aged goat cheese, sunflower seeds and a “very classic vinaigrette with mustard and a little bit of honey.”
The greens are local, of course.
“All great things are grown in California,” Greg says.
Bell’s is playing around with a tartine featuring albacore tuna. The version I try includes parsley mayo, diced pimiento, celery, Persian cucumber and housemade sambal. On the day I interview the Ryans, they’re still figuring out how best to present this dish. Is this something that guests should pick up with their hands? Should it come with a steak knife? Either way, the flavors and texture pop. It’s the kind of bistro food you want to eat again and again. Which is the point of this restaurant.
“We wanted to get away from the idea of a chef-driven restaurant,” Daisy says. “It’s the type of food that you’ll have a couple times a week and not just once a month.”
There will be steak tartare. Pastas will include French gnocchi made with pâte à choux and served in a sauce with Emmentaler and Gruyère cheese.
“I suppose you would say it’s gnocchi Parisienne, but we’re being a little more mellow,” Daisy says. “Pasta’s my favorite thing.”
Another pasta dish that’s being tested is capellini (although Daisy will probably just call it "pasta" on the menu, because why complicate things?) with lemon Parmesan sauce, prosciutto, peas and crispy shallots.
“It’s pretty straightforward,” Daisy says. “To me, pasta should be straightforward.”
Daisy is also thinking about uni pasta, because famed Santa Barbara uni diver Stephanie Mutz lives in Los Alamos. It’s easy to keep things local in this part of California.
Greg and Daisy, who met in 2008 when they were both working in Per Se’s dining room, have worked at high-profile restaurants on both coasts. Greg’s resume includes Tribeca Grill and the Beverly Hills Hotel’s Polo Lounge. Daisy’s resume includes Aureole, Gramercy Tavern, Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare and L.A.’s Line hotel and Cadet. The couple also made their way to Austin, where Greg managed Jeffrey’s and Josephine House while Daisy worked on the beverage side of things.
Now they finally have their own restaurant, in a region of California known for wine and a rural lifestyle.
“I keep thinking about this area a lot, and the way it looks and feels reminds me a lot of France,” Greg says.
The wine list at Bell’s will features small local producers that don’t have their own tasting rooms. Daisy and Greg will also offer some of their favorites from the Champagne region.
“We didn’t want to come in and do anything crazy,” Daisy says. “For us, this is the type of restaurant we always wanted to have. With a French bistro, it’s kind of the French working man’s food, when you think about wine country in France and what people eat there. And I keep thinking that this is wine country here, and there are a lot of working-class farmers and winemakers. And again, we want to have food that people want multiple times a week, which is also just smart business.”
Bell’s, 406 Bell St., Los Alamos, 805-344-4609