For Quentin Garcia, these are the days to remember — a time when years of research and craftsmanship begin to render the kind of sweet euphoria that builds up when a dream is about to be realized.
Garcia is the executive chef of the new Rainbird restaurant that opens this Friday, Feb. 11, at the El Capitan Hotel on Main Street in downtown Merced.
Described as a completely new gastronomic experience for both the city and this region of the Central Valley, the Rainbird combines a five-course tasting menu with specialty items sourced from local farms, an unmatched wine selection, and an upscale atmosphere that aims to embrace the uniqueness of the local community and share it with the rest of the world.
“There really is no truly defined, fine dining restaurant in Merced,” Chef Garcia says. “Having the opportunity to spearhead this, and to introduce guests to this level of cuisine that I truly believe Merced deserves — one that is surrounded by all these farmers and growers — is something really special.”
The 27-year-old Garcia says it’s a rare opportunity for a chef to be able to work on a concept restaurant from the ground up, and see it come to fruition with a team of directors, and with significant support from the El Capitan and its JdV by Hyatt corporate brand.
The Rainbird team includes Director of Food & Beverage Benjamin Bennett, General Manager Daniel Adeh, and French Sommelier Christophe Tassan, among other executives.
Chef Garcia’s passion for food began at an early age, and his determination to master skills led him to culinary training in Europe. He soon found work in a variety of upscale restaurants such as The Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena. When he was only 23 years old, he was welcomed into the highbrow Blue Note club and restaurant in Napa.
Two years ago, he arrived in Merced as an impressive, up-and-coming chef with some remarkable credentials and an experimental style. He was tasked with creating and introducing the gastronomic vision at both the Mainzer Theatre and the El Capitan Hotel. The renovations of both historic buildings were part of a major redevelopment project that has transformed an entire section of Main Street and breathed new life into the downtown scene.
Chef Garcia says he was excited about the Rainbird concept from the start, but it would take nearly two years of planning and research to be finally developed inside its space to one side of the hotel’s main entrance.
“Merced is such a unique market,” he says. “Our team members have all been part of destination restaurants and high-end places, and we all realized that copy and paste is not going to work here.”
One thing Chef Garcia set out to do was to build relationships with local farmers in Merced and beyond, including J. Marchini Farms, Burroughs Family Farms, and Joseph Gallo Farms, to name a few.
He says he felt like he was on a treasure hunt when he stumbled upon a grower in the Winton area known as Humble Rice Farmer. The small business is led by a Hmong family of farmers who grow “amazing flowers for bouquets, gorgeous herbs, and wonderful tomatoes and strawberries.” They had never sold directly to a restaurant before, Garcia says, and it was a proud moment for both parties to create a new partnership.
Chef Garcia says he has had similar adventures securing local and regional sources for nuts, mushrooms, olive oil, prime cuts of beef … just about everything imaginable.
And that’s what the Rainbird hopes to project to tourists and visitors coming through this area, and perhaps on their way to Yosemite. It’s something locals already know: We’re in the middle of one of the nation’s most important and diverse agricultural regions — with more than 200 crop varietals.
Armed with this palette of local flavors and ingredients, Chef Garcia is like a kid in a playground, creating some exciting dishes that are sure to create wonder and amazement.
“One of the most exciting ones for me is the Cauliflower Custard,” he says. “It’s a really cool dish that messes with your palate a bit. You think you know what you are getting into, and you taste it, and the next thing you know, you’re getting flavors of smoke and bacon. But it’s vegan. And it’s absolutely delicious. …
“There’s another one for some people who are not too explorative. We have a Ribeye, and I guarantee that the first taste of this Ribeye will be one of the best you have ever tasted. … We are getting all organic, grass-fed beef from local farms. … We are adding beautiful carrots and perfectly cooked shallots, and all types of ingredients and reinforcement of flavors … It’s something really magical.”
Highlights from the opening menu will include:
· White Onion Macaron – pork pâté, chicken skin, lingonberry jam, shiso
· Superfino Carnaroli Risotto – chestnut mushroom, Pinon pine nuts, vintage parmesan, slow cooked garlic, golden shallot oil
· The Rain Bird – coriander-cured squab, truffle jus, melted cabbage, white balsamic mustard seeds
· Pistachio Gelato – coffee roasted sweet potato, black apple caramel, preserved blueberries
Rainbird is introducing the largest restaurant wine list in Merced, by far. An optional wine pairing to each meal course draws selections from a curated 60-bottle list from consulting Sommelier Tassan. In all, the Rainbird has about 1,200 bottles in its cellar, and about 110 selections to choose from, including sparkling, rose and dessert wines.
Not to be outdone, Rainbird’s artisan cocktail program will feature beverages curated to complement Chef Quentin’s cuisine. Cocktails will be crafted around a specifically chosen ingredient, inspired by seasonal produce sourced from Central California, with a nod given to the classic cocktail style.
Highlights from the cocktail menu will include:
· Sea Buckthorn – vodka or gin, Aperol, sea buckthorn shrub, soda
· Acorn – bourbon, orgeat, grapefruit bitters, acorn shell
· Drinking Bird – tequila reposado, pomegranate, grapefruit, gentian liqueur, honey.
While guests are drinking, they can enjoy Rainbird’s interior design by Nicole Hollis that features rich natural textures to mimic the earth’s natural elements. Paired with Central Valley artwork (such as Margaret Haden’s ceramic clay and Daniel Van Gerpen’s agronomy-inspired canvases), the space will showcase countless odes to the region’s agricultural purpose. A focal point of the restaurant is the Chef’s Table, made by local woodworker George Pena, from a 90-year-old Deodor cedar tree that was felled by a storm just north of Merced.
Says Chef Garcia, “This restaurant is a celebration of the local community.”
The Rainbird experience, however, does have its price.
The dinner tasting menu starts at $80, and a wine pairing package for each course will go between $30 to $35.
There will be two to three options per course, so guests can experiment. It also allows guests to return and try the menu one or two times more in order to experience all the selections.
Chef Garcia likes to emphasize the “experience” of the Rainbird that allows guests plenty of time to enjoy their dinner and company. Certain dishes will also have tableside presentations that accentuate the dining experience and offer further one-on-one interaction and explanation to the guest of how Rainbird’s culinary team works with the ingredients start to finish.
The Rainbird will be open for dinner Friday and Saturday, from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., with the addition of Thursday Night Dinner and Sunday Brunch to come in the spring.
Chef Garcia says the Sunday Brunch will be an elevated version of a traditional brunch, but also will be more approachable with an a la carte menu.
“It’s going to be seasonal, and a little more playful,” he says. “It’s going to be a creative and lighthearted take on the Rainbird experience.”
The chef says he’s excited to make little treats like “Dutch stroopwafels with black apple caramel and topped with juniper-smoked chocolate, and served with French press coffee. Guests will be able to enjoy them as they wait for their main dishes. It’s little moments like this that will be magical.”
The Rainbird is located at 609 West Main Street, on the ground floor of El Capitan, in downtown Merced. For more information, visit online at: rainbirdrestaurant.com.