Entrepreneurs Meekk Shelef and Bryan Cooper have an interesting approach to running their La Bodega restaurant in Sevastopol.
They only have six tables outside on the garden terrace and they are only open for dinner Thursday through Sunday. Guests not only need dinner reservations, but are asked to call ahead for their meal choices.
That’s because Shelef and Cooper prioritize the satisfaction of their staff and their enjoyment.
“Reservations mean it’s quieter for the cooks. We don’t want them to be pressured because you can smell the stress in the food,” Shelef said. “And pre-ordering means less food waste.”
Last month, Shelef and Cooper made a bold change, transforming their Mediterranean and Middle Eastern menu into an all-vegetarian and vegan concept. They did this despite the fact that most of their regular customers are non-vegetarians, said Israeli-born Shelef.
Their goal is to help protect the Earth and show people how great plant-based food can be when made with premium ingredients and many of the herbs and spices that La Bodega is known for. since its opening in 2008.
“We don’t make money on food, anyway,” Shelef said, as if that made obvious financial sense. “We’re just trying to break even and make money on wine.”
In a way, the cheerful approach succeeded. Attribute that accomplishment to their first business, Sonoma Wine Shop on Sonoma Plaza, which Cooper purchased in 2001 as a tasting room, a hangout for his wine club members, and an eventual home for his Harvest View Wine brand. The Bodega includes a second Sonoma wine store, and many of the restaurant’s patrons are loyal wine club members who also come for non-denominational holidays such as Passover and Easter.
But there’s more to madness, enough to drive an accountant mad. Appetizers are already a bargain, ranging from $14 to $29, while more than 600 California boutique wine choices are sold at retail. And if you register as a member of the wine club (at no cost and with no commitment to purchase), you benefit from discounts on food products and wholesale prices on wine. At the current count, there are approximately 4,500 members across the United States, Europe, and Japan.
I’m not going to force my brain to try to figure out how this all works. Because there’s also the chef – Rick Vargas, who has been with the team since 2004, when he and his then-wife Shelef ran the place as French-fusion Bistro v.
“He uses only the most expensive ingredients from local organic farmers; dairies; cheese makers; mushroom foragers; and beekeepers,” Shelef said, as if that made sense for the bottom line as well.
It turns out to be many, many ingredients, in complicated dishes. Vargas dominates the kitchen as if still working at his previous jobs at the three-star Michelin Crocodile in France and the former Masa’s and Aqua in San Francisco. Its weekly menu typically includes a dozen entrees, four elaborate salads, more than a dozen starters, and nearly two dozen desserts and pastries made by a staff baker.
I counted the ingredients for the green lentil soup ($12). It came out at 10 items for the base vegetable broth and eight for the double broth (another broth added to intensify and deepen the flavor of the first broth). For the body of the soup, count 15 other ingredients, three more for a finishing fillet and three more for the garnish.
At the heart of the sumptuous soup are elegant French Puy lentils, San Marzano tomatoes, porcini mushrooms, dozens of roasted vegetables, champagne vinegar, dry white wine and dozens of hand-roasted spices bringing the intoxicating scent of cardamom, allspice, coriander, cumin, Sichuan pepper, star anise, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, fenugreek, turmeric and ginger.
To finish, the masterpiece is topped with a thick Mexican cream mixed with spicy and fiery zhug, a Yemeni mixture that Petaluma and Napa’s Whole Spice prepare with chili peppers, garlic, cilantro, coriander, sea salt, cumin, green cardamom and cloves. And yes, the soup tastes absolutely magical.
For another starter, the chef offers a mezze platter with milk and honey pita, hummus, Israeli red pepper matbucha, homemade goat’s milk labné, olives and caramelized eggplant spread with pomegranate molasses. Each item is homemade and the flavors are sparkling.
The handmade pasta is a signature, also available gluten-free or grain-free. Light as a feather and lacy, the ravioli arrive with wild morels and caramelized artichoke hearts bathed in a rich cream of mushroom soup ($29); or with chard, spinach, basil, caramelized onion, ricotta, Fiscalini cheddar and Napoletana sauce sweetened with Clover Sonoma butter and candied lemon zip ($24). Not only is meat unnecessary in these dishes, but it would detract from their delicate beauty.