Somewhere in this space a few weeks ago I mentioned that a new restaurant, 3 Foods Café, had finally opened behind the Arcata Co-op. I had not yet eaten there, and as I noted, I had no idea what the three foods in the name might be.
At this point I've been there three times - well, actually four times, although one night when I went with friends on impulse every table was full and we had to go elsewhere. I now have a much better idea what the place is all about, and I've heard a couple of explanations about what those "three foods" are, although I'm still not sure I totally understand.
You know how it is when you go to a restaurant and study the menu searching for some dish you think you might like? Well, at 3 Foods, the first time my wife and I ate there, both of us were faced with a hard choice: There were so many things we wanted to try we had to come back, and then come back again.
We've always started at the top of the menu with a "finger food" starter called "The Hard to Pronounce," which was hard to pass up since it only cost $3. It's basically an Indian sampler, ramekins of raita (a creamy cucumber relish, in this case with pineapple), mango chutney, and chickpea ragada, served one time with papadams (crispy, thin tortilla-like fried crackers) and another time with naan (Indian flat bread).
For entrées, we ordered "The Bus Driver," a pan-fried sesame chicken with a delightfully crunchy texture, drizzled with a raspberry yogurt coulis (not sweet) and served atop mashed potatoes, and "The Damn Tasty," a spicy Moroccan seafood stew with prawns, clams and vegetables swimming in a garlicky tomato broth. It was, in fact, damn tasty. Where the bus driver comes in in the chicken dish, I do not know.
We chose a Fieldbrook Piccola, one of the fine wines on the menu (all of them local), and loved our meal. At the end of dinner my wife, Amy, positively gushed praise, and perhaps for that reason, our waitress, Kellie, brought Chef Naomi Beck out to the table for feedback.
Amy heaped on more praise. I offered compliments, but also some advice. We'd both ordered smaller portions, Amy's chicken was under $9, but the portion was huge. I can't imagine what the $13 size might have been.
By the time I sat down with Naomi last Sunday morning, she'd taken the advice to heart: The Co-op butchers are now portioning their chicken breast in four-ounce pieces.
The work/ownership arrangement at 3 Foods is basically a collective. Naomi and her husband Karl Langer own the place with four other 20-somethings. Each has a role, but all help run the restaurant with Naomi serving as de facto chef/leader.
Naomi moved to Humboldt about three years ago, basically to escape San Diego, where all but one of the partners had been friends since their teen years. Karl followed six months later.
Naomi took a few classes at C.R. including one in restaurant management (she admits she cut class often) then found work so Karl could focus on school. "I'd worked in restaurants, I've kind of always known I wanted to do that," she said. "I worked bussing tables in a little neighborhood place when I was 15, then worked in a coffee shop, waitressing and managing. I didn't really start cooking until I moved up here."
She admits she lied her way into a cooking job at Hurricane Kate's. "I went in and they said they were looking for a sauté cook. I was like, `Oh sure, I'm great at that.' Then I went home and googled what sauté meant. I figured I'd go and try it."
It was a bold leap, but it worked, and she learned the ropes of line cooking in the short time she worked there, less than a year. Her plan was to find a space for a dream restaurant.
"I had the idea that I wanted to open a place and started looking around," she recalled. She noticed that the Art Center had left a vacancy on the corner behind the Arcata Co-op, but it was soon occupied by Rita's Market. When she talked with the landlord, she was told that the space next door, formerly Vinatura Winery, was opening up.
"I looked at it and thought, `perfect' - even though it was full of wine barrels. I loved this wall of solid 2x6s."
The wall, now shiny with a couple of coats of varathane, is the most striking feature of the place, a small space with high ceilings that make it seem spacious.
As it always does, the conversion/permit process took longer than anticipated. "We were doing a lot of it ourselves and didn't really know what we were doing. It got to a point where we were close, and since we'd been paying rent, we couldn't afford to wait any longer. We'd just finished construction, but we had to open to pay rent. We opened and didn't look back."
So, what are the three foods referenced in the name of the 3 Foods Café?
"It's based on a philosophy I read. It says you take in three foods to live. One being the regular food you eat. Another being the air that you breathe. The third one is the impressions you take in, everything that makes up your reality.
"The idea is to try to refine the impressions you take in and the foods you take in to create higher states of consciousness. In my understanding that means more harmony and love. That was the philosophy that set this thing in motion."
How does this translate into such an eclectic menu? She's not sure.
"I never decided to focus on one kind of food. It wasn't so much a conscious decision; it's just the way I cook. I've always kind of put random stuff together - I think it's because I'm like a rebel at heart, so when something's normal I want to change it a little bit. I guess I have eclectic tastes. I don't know how else to explain."
She actually did some market research when she was in the planning stage. She thought she'd try a tapas restaurant, but found that might not fly, and opted against a couple of popular choices, Indian and Thai food. Instead she went in several directions at once, pulling from a wide range of cultural touchstones, drawing "inspiration," as she puts it, from the bold flavors of Indian, Korean, Italian and Moroccan food. Techniques are borrowed from French cuisine and plain old home cooking.
The bill of fare has evolved a bit since the place opened at the end of January. "I changed the menu as I learned that certain dishes were more labor intensive than I anticipated," Naomi explained.
Thus my one of wife's favorites fell by the wayside. "Baby It's Cold Outside," a three-cheese ravioli swimming in Alfredo and topped with even more cheese, made way for a "decadent" fettuccini dish studded with tomatoes and bits of green onion. A Swedish-style stew of short ribs cooked until the meat fell from the bone, took too long to finish and thus was replaced by "Home on the Range," a free range buffalo tri-tip steak served incongruously with cous cous and a compote of apples, bleu cheese, walnuts and spinach.
The constant is something intangible, a bold passion that fills the place. In the kitchen that Sunday morning a note in red marker put it into words, "Love affects flavor."
"The main thing I wanted to do is give people like, love, I guess," Naomi told me with some hesitance. "It sounds kind of cheesy, but I'm just someone who has a general love for people - there's this activism streak in me that wants to help save the world. When I was younger I did peace rallies and fasting and did things because I was sad about the war. I realized I could sit around and be sad, or I could try to help make peace, like John and Yoko talked about - you know, cultivating love."
3 Foods Café is at 835 J St. in Arcata. They're open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday from 5 to 11 p.m. Reservations are recommended, and pretty much mandatory on weekends. Call 822-WISH (822-9474). You can see the whole menu and wine list at their website: www.cafeattheendoftheuniverse.com.
Now, let me mention a couple of food-related events, both this Saturday, March 10. The local charter school Northcoast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy presents its 5th annual French Dinner and Dance at the Bayside Grange starting at 5:30 with hors d'oeuvres before the three-course French meal prepared by NPA instructor Marceau Verdiere (a chef from France) and Lauren Sarabia of Comfort of Home Catering, who cooks for the kids at school. The menu entrées: Boeuf Bourguignon, Salmon with Picon Jam, or Vol au Vent (puff pastry filled with wild mushrooms and leeks). Dinner music by Magnolia, dancing after to The Delta Nationals. Dinner is $40. Dancing only, $10. Go to www.northcoastprep.org for details or call 826-0102 for reservations.
In Eureka that night the Ink People present their annual Artware Affair at the Wharfinger, where, among other things, you can purchase hand-painted platters and other dishes. This year's theme is "Barbary Coast" focusing on cultures of Morocco and North Africa. They'll have the requisite live and silent auctions, music by Dogbone and others, bellydancing, and of course dinner, plus the "Dessert as Art" competition, with celebrity judges sampling and selecting the tasty winners. Guess who gets to be a judge? That's right, me. Yum. Admission: $40. Call 442-8413 for reservations.