Visit Pino Alto Restaurant for great meals by cooking students plus Friday farm to table dinner

Lemon buttermilk tart from a late October “New Releases” dinner at Pino Alto Restaurant

Lemon buttermilk tart from a late October “New Releases” dinner at Pino Alto Restaurant

If you are a foodie and haven’t yet discovered Pino Alto Restaurant, it’s a secret worth sharing. I just had the pleasure of dining there for the first time. The Cabrillo College culinary arts department operates Pino Alto, which is located in the historic Sesnon House on campus. It’s open during the fall and spring semesters, Sept.-Dec. and Feb.-May, and the Cabrillo Horticulture department grows a lot of the produce served. Students from the “Advanced Culinary” class are the ones who run the restaurant (with instructors’ supervision, of course). Lunch is served Mon-Thurs and dinner Wed-Fri. See the site for specific hours and menus. There are also special events like a farm to table dinner this Friday, Nov. 6: keep reading for details.

I dined at Pino Alto in late October; the menu I ordered from is available through Thursday, Nov. 5.  Dinner menus change every 3-4 weeks and lunch menus change weekly. A tapas-themed dinner menu will debut on Nov. 11. From the moment we entered the restaurant, everything was wonderful. Staff (culinary students) were very attentive, checking often to see if we needed beverage or bread refills (the bread was warm and fresh, so it was hard to say no, but I wanted to try several food items). The meal began with a complimentary salmon cake starter that they referred to as an amuse bouche, but it was bigger than the traditional one-bite amuse. Actually, I was pleasantly surprised by the generous sizes of all the courses! The salmon was delicious and moist, and the cake had a nice crunch. Chive masarpone provided a creamy, perfect topping. I had the chance to sample my husband’s crab-stuffed prawns with mango corn salsa, which was very tasty. Beet soup with ginger and coconut, garnished with a beet chip and crème fraiche, followed. It did not disappoint! All dinner entrees are accompanied by your choice of soup or salad.

Before I get to the rest of the meal, let me talk a little more about the way Pino Alto works. As I mentioned, Advanced Culinary students act as restaurant staff each semester. They fill all the typical positions including Manager, Set/Wait, Prep/Wait, Pantry/Wait, Bake, Pastry, Hot Line, and Head Chef. Our waitperson that night was Kimber Styles Ashley, who created—or helped create—quite a few dishes featured on the current menu, which is titled “New Releases.” She explained the menu-designing process that occurs each time: “This New Releases menu, which ends Nov. 5, was very much a collaborative menu. Individually we present a complete menu to our class in a discussion format on BlackBoard,” said Ashley. “Each meal is posted separately and we discuss, comment and vote on everyone’s dishes. We then discuss and vote on the dishes that received the most votes in class and then have a final vote. I was honored with having one of my main dishes and desserts chosen for the New Releases Menu. My main was grilled prime New York strip sirloin served with a lima bean and corn ragout and a nest of crispy string onions on top.”

My husband ordered the sirloin and it was divine; he pronounced it “buttery and tender.” My entrée was probably my favorite dish that night. I chose a wild mushroom cassoulet with artichoke hearts and onion confit. It was earthy and rich; the flavors and textures complemented each other beautifully. For dessert we shared a lemon buttermilk tart topped with vanilla whip cream and candied lemon rind. Let’s just say, it rocked our world and we sort of fought over the last bites. This was Ashley’s creation. She had the opportunity to work at Companion Bakeshop this past summer, and was inspired to create this tart after trying Companion’s Buttermilk Meyer Lemon pie, which she tasted at Pie Ranch up the coast.

Eric Carter, chair of the Culinary Arts program, serves as chef at Pino Alto restaurant and co-instructor for the Advanced Culinary class. He really enjoys these roles. “I love to see the growth in the students’ abilities and skills,” says Carter. “It’s a challenging class, nine units, and they are asked to perform at a very high level.”  It’s sometimes rough at the very beginning of the semester, he says, but things get much smoother very quickly as students become comfortable in both the front and back of the house. “Then I start to see them work independently and carry themselves with confidence.  It’s rewarding.”

Carter likes the fact that he gets to operate a restaurant that is well regarded in the community, and also influence many students’ lives in a positive way. He sometimes hears this from students years after they’ve finished the program.

The farm to table dinner on Nov. 6 will be a four-course menu with wine pairings, featuring lots of ingredients sourced from local purveyors like Jacobs Farm, Live Earth Farm and Stagnaro’s Seafood. The wine will be from Savannah-Channelle, Hunter Hill, Clos La Chance, Mountain Winery and Burrell School. See full menu below. The cost is $65 per person plus tax and gratuity. A reception starts at 6:30 p.m. with dinner at 7. For reservations, call (831) 479-6524.

Ashley is thrilled that several of her dishes were chosen for this event: the olive oil toast hors d’oeuvre, the rock cod fritter appetizer, the main course, and the dessert. She says that locally and seasonally harvested menus are her passion and that she’s been learning and growing in that direction through her Cabrillo culinary arts education. “I am definitely a California Cuisine-type of cook and would like to move towards the Slow-Food Movement as well,” says Ashley. “I think that’s why this Friday’s farm-to-table event was such a successful menu for me. Cooking from what’s at the farm makes me happy, excited and I feel alive.”

Carter hopes to see some new faces as customers in the near future. I can’t wait to go back myself. If you’re interested in getting on the list to keep informed about when Pino Alto is open and viewing current menus, Carter suggests writing to Sue Slater at suslater@cabrillo.edu.

November 6 menu

  • Three passed hors d’oeuvres: Jacobs Farm chive flatbread with garlic and brie; olive oil toasts with kale, feta, pine nuts and raisins; and ceviche on crispy won tons.
  • First course: smoked Pacific rock cod fritter with beet vinaigrette (or Romanesco fritter for vegetarian option)
  • Second course: grilled Monterey Bay calamari salad, mint vinaigrette, assorted Live Earth Farm vegetables
  • Main course: prosciutto wrapped halibut (depending on availability) with sage, served with rosemary apple braised chard and fennel potato gratin
  • Main course vegetarian option: Butterkin pumpkin sage risotto
  • Dessert: Apple pecan bread pudding with bourbon caramel sauce and cinnamon ice cream

Pino Alto Location: Sesnon House at Cabrillo College: 6500 Soquel Drive, Aptos

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