There’s been plenty written about Kinch and Mentone over the past year: Christina Waters’ piece in the Good Times on the anticipation of having a David Kinch presence right here in Aptos, Food & Wine’s article on their pivot to pizza and salad only takeout when pandemic shutdowns cancelled their planned opening, and their recent elevation to Michelin’s Bib Gourmand list. After three meals at Mentone: a take-out Christmas Eve feast and two in-person meals with friends and family, I’ve got to say that everything about the Mentone experience is worth the buzz.
A nod to local history
I’m going to start with Mentone’s building itself as an example of the attention to detail that makes Mentone great. The restaurant sits on the original site of the Hihn Apple Barn, built in 1891 by Frederick Hihn and Claus Spreckles. John Hibble of the Aptos History Museum explains the history and context of the old barn:
“When Frederick Hihn and Claus Spreckles essentially brought the railroad to Santa Cruz County in the 1880s, it opened up a way to transport lumber, so they cut down virtually all of the redwood trees in Aptos. When they were done cutting down trees, Spreckles paid his lumberjacks to plant apple trees. When they were done planting, he sold the orchards to the lumberjacks. However, they had to ship the apples to market on his railroad, which today is where Valencia Road is located. The apples were packed at his apple barn, under the Valencia brand apple label.”
Post-apple industry, the barn was a premiere antiques market for over 50 years. It was moved 300′, rotated, and remodeled in 2017 as part of a revitalized Aptos Village Plan and now houses New Leaf Market.
Kinch and his partners built Mentone from ground-up on part of the barn’s original site, and I really love how they designed the exterior in a wooden barn architectural style, a direct connection to the location’s past. There’s even this historical marker on the grounds.
Then the multiple roof heights and really exciting color palette of buttercream, terracotta, and pink bring to mind the pastel-colored buildings lining the sea in Menton, France, the French Riviera town that served as Mentone’s inspiration. It’s a great building.
Siting inside Mentone reminds me so much of eating at one of my favorite travel finds, La Pizza Cresci, in Menton’s neighboring city of Nice. Both restaurants have enormous Valoriani pizza ovens as a centerpiece of the restaurant. Both have still shots of Italian movie stars lining the walls. Both are welcoming and cool at the same time. At Mentone, it’s hard to be uncool when the pizza oven is covered with a mosaic of the Rolling Stones mouth eating a slice of pizza.
Attention to detail
One of the best parts of eating at Mentone is having a world-class restaurant for pizza night prices. The attention to detail is a big part of that top-level experience. For example, as soon as we were seated, we were offered still or sparking water. Our choice was filtered and sparkled in-house and delivered to the table in heavy leaded glass carafes. That’s a very nice detail than helps make the experience special.
Then there are specially made plates with the Mentone logo on which the house cured wagyu bresaola is served. Oh, and the Italian language paper on which the fried sardines drained? Now that’s a super cool tiny detail that levels up.
But it’s really about the food
The food really is out of this world, with flavor combinations that are surprising, delighting, and satisfying. One night after a long bike ride, we tried basically everything on the menu including this crudo. The menu described it as containing “yellowtail, cucumber, fermented pepper, shallot.” Nothing in that list of ingredients prepares you for beautifully arranged slices of fish swimming in a neon green pool, the pure zingy brightness of what must have been a lemony cucumber broth, the very delicate and slight crunch of shallots making every bite a revelation.
I felt the same way about the tomato and watermelon salad. The menu read simply, “Chamomile ricotta, pistachio, marigold.” Perhaps not so simply. The flavor of the chamomile and marigold were so unique, very different from anything I’d ever had before. Bright, sweet, and tart with lots of umami. It was hard to share!
Sharing is easy, because dishes are served family-style. Everyone gets a plate and the bowls of deliciousness the serving team brings, as freshly prepared as possible, can be passed around the table.
Because the food is seasonal, you probably won’t have either of these dishes on the menu when you go. But I can promise, based on everything I’ve tried over the past year, from the chickpea and white bean soup to the uni bucatini to the house made focaccia to the Caesar made with bitter greens, you’ll never be disappointed with the flavors.
Pizza is the star of the show
The pizza is undeniably the star. The first time I was there, one of the pizza specials had guanciale with preserved lemon. This time we tried the soppressata with aged mozzarella, pickled Calabrian chili, and fairy dust. No, I did NOT ask what the fairy dust was. I’m happy to leave some magic to the imagination. All I know about the dough is that it’s proofed for 48 hours. That’s a lot of love and thought going into each one of these pies.
Cocktails with a twist
Mentone has a full bar, and the cocktail menu is as inspired and ever-changing as the food. Make sure to try their frozen bubbly spritz, a slushy for grown-ups and comes right of of a dedicated slushy machine at the bar. You can even buy a Mentone Frozen Bubbly Spritz t-shirt as a souvenir of your meal.
Every single person, hostess, bartenders, sommeliers, servers, bussers, are professional and smart and really know their front of house. The service is a well choreographed dance; there’s a dip at the bar, a pirouette in the kitchen, and drop into the tables with a smile and a tray. They make their very demanding jobs feel effortless. The vibe of the entire Mentone team makes you, as a customer, feel like it’s a happy place to be. And want to return.
Mentone is located at 174 Aptos Village Way, Aptos, CA 95003. Make a reservation online or take your chances and sit at the bar. They are open Friday-Saturday 5pm-10pm, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday 5pm-9pm, and closed Monday and Tuesday.