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Downtown Monterey Fixture Lallapalooza reopens Friday as PALOOZA

August 4, 2020 – One of the most iconic spots in downtown Monterey starts a new chapter this week. 

Lallapalooza—the flagship of the Ottone Restaurant Group—opened in 1997 and ushered in a new era for Monterey’s downtown dining. But the popular late-night hangout was showing signs of age. “It’s a 20-year-old restaurant that’s kind of a legend on Alvarado, but it was feeling a little tired,” explains Gianni Ottone, beverage director and operations officer for the Ottone Restaurant Group. “I think we weren’t using the space to its full capacity. We’re excited to try something new.”

So this Friday, the restaurant will reopen as PALOOZA.

New dinner party concept at PALOOZA (photo: Liz Birnbaum/The Curated Feast)

This new chapter shifts the restaurant’s focus from a night out to a night in. “Come make yourself at home. Spend your evening with us, let us show you a good time,” says executive chef Joshua Kinzer.

Ottone envisions PALOOZA as a spot for a night of good food and good wine with good friends, “It’s casual and comfortable, like going to your friend’s house for a dinner party.”

There’s risk involved with refreshing a restaurant as established and popular as Lallapalooza, Ottone admits. “We have a lot of regulars who are pretty loyal to our menu, so we’re walking a fine line between doing something that’s new and exciting and different, while still entertaining the locals who love us for what we do.”

And Kinzer recognizes the responsibility on his shoulders during this transition, “I want to gain people’s trust. I want people to come in here and feel comfortable and not feel that too much has changed.” But he’s undaunted and excited by the opportunity to helm PALOOZA as it moves into a new decade. “20 years ago, this place set a new standard for dining on the peninsula. Times have changed now and we’re going to set the next standard.”

Kinzer has made a career of cooking and has worked at several of Monterey County’s most celebrated restaurants—Anton & Michel, Bernardus Lodge, Carmel Valley Ranch, Salt Wood Kitchen and Oysterette and, most recently, Seventh & Dolores Steakhouse.

He’s hard pressed to give a succinct summary of PALOOZA’s new cuisine. The menu will be chef-driven, with seasonal influence—though not strictly seasonal in scope—on classic and contemporary dishes. “It’s comfort food,” he says while emphasizing global inspirations, “It’s not just French influence, not just Spanish, not just Italian, not just Asian.”

PALOOZA executive chef Joshua Kinzer (photo: Liz Birnbaum/The Curated Feast)

He bristles at the suggestion of “contemporary global cuisine.”

“That feels so serious!” he says, underscoring how he hopes to keep the food humble and approachable. Ottone chimes in, “We’ve always said ‘craveable cuisine.’ We want people to read the menu and say, ‘I want to eat that.’” Both describe a menu that walks the line between familiar and fancy. “It’s super approachable food, but executed in a way that’s a little bit more elevated,” Ottone says.

Kinzer plans to leverage the varied tips and tricks he’s learned throughout his career to add unexpected elements to classic dishes. He’s started a fermentation program—including housemade kombucha—as a way to add pops of acid. In other cases, fish sauce may add a bit of funk. “I’m not doing anything crazy. I’m not reinventing the wheel—I just went from wood wheels to titanium,” he laughs.

PALOOZA’s menu includes shared small plates, pizzas and burgers, and “centerpieces.” Ottone explains, “You order four or five of these shared plates and a ‘centerpiece’ with a couple sides that’s like your main protein dish for the table.”

Soy noodles with crab and furikake (photo: Liz Birnbaum/The Curated Feast)

New small plates include Thai-inspired Lil’ Sandwich with shrimp and kohlrabi slaw on sweet and fluffy Hawaiian King’s bread ($12), Korean-inspired chicken skewers with lemongrass, sweet chile and kimchi ($13) and soy noodles with crab and furikake seaweed spice blend ($26). Many selections are vegetarian or gluten-free and Kinzer isn’t fazed by the challenge of diners’ dietary restrictions. “It’s just another chance to be creative,” he says.

The centerpieces will be anchored by a new dry-aged steak program.

“I don’t want a crazy change in flavor profile, but I would like a little bit of a buttery, melt-in-your-mouth steak,” explains Kinzer. Armed with a high-tech set of tools to monitor temperature and humidity—he’s perfecting PALOOZA’s dry-aging program. Offerings will be limited for Friday’s debut, but will expand in the weeks ahead. 

Kinzer will also act as pastry chef with just a pair of desserts on offer to start, but he teases more additions as the restaurant settles back into service.

Kinzer is quick to emphasize some of Lallapalooza’s iconic dishes will remain—including pizzas, burgers and more. “I’ve had a lot of fries in my day and I like these [duck fat] fries. Their calamari was already my favorite in town. We’ll still have the steak bites.”

Meanwhile, Ottone has given a facelift to PALOOZA’s beverage program. Previously, it was rooted in cocktails, but he’s looking to give equal attention to wine now. 

Gianni Ottone, beverage director and operations manager of the Ottone Restaurant Group (photo: Liz Birnbaum/The Curated Feast)

“I do a lot of natural wines—low intervention, organically farmed, small production—at a low price point, $30 to $90 a bottle.”

Ottone recognizes “natural wine” is a loaded term. “I hate to use the words ‘natural wine’ because it often entails f—– up wine,” he says, referencing a characteristic “funk” of some natural wines. “I like clean, not f—– up, natural wine.”

But he sees the natural wine label as an opportunity, “It gets diners thinking about who produced this, how did they produce this, how was it farmed, how much sulfur and other additives were thrown in.” 

So how did Ottone curate selections for PALOOZA? “I’m kind of selfish when I buy wine, I go by my palate, so it’s definitely pretty worldly.” He points out the list features an eclectic geography, “We have a good amount of domestic, but I have a lot of Old World too.”

“A big thing for me is the producers. These are all very artisan wines from small producers and I think they’re really special,” he says. “These are really top guys in their area and I’m just excited to showcase them.”

Beyond provenance, Ottone is looking for wines with a particular palette of flavors. “Everything is really light and high acid and pairs well with food. I think there’s a very skewed idea of what wine is in this area and everybody is expecting to get that big, fruity Cab. I want to show people something else.” And price is important too, “It’s not trophy wine. I mean, I think they’re trophies, but they’re not status symbol wines. It’s quality stuff at a good price point.”

That said, Ottone does point out some new cocktail additions on a revamped list that gives a modern twist to the classics. The Last Train to Oaxaca riffs on the Old Fashioned with mezcal and tequila ($12). Other new signatures include the Coco Chanel—“really light, kind of like an aperitif cocktail”—with Lillet Blanc, lemon and rosewater ($11) and the Red Saint with tea botanicals and St. Germain—“the elderflower lifts it up and gives it some ethereal floral notes”—($8). Cocktails will be available for takeout with dinner.

Plans for PALOOZA’s refreshed concept started before the coronavirus pandemic and the restaurant fortuitously used its temporary closure to renovate the interior and refine service under the “new normal.” 

The team says they took inspiration from the art deco-style architecture—with a new age punk twist. The space now features dark woods and wallpaper, Edison bulbs with amber glow, and pops of punk and contemporary art. The large dining room with ample seating capacity means they’ll be able to easily accommodate social distancing when indoor dining resumes. In the meantime, a parklet is under construction to expand the existing outdoor patio on Alvarado Street.

PALOOZA opens this Friday, August 7, for outdoor dining and takeout. 

PALOOZA • 474 Alvarado Street, Monterey • 831-645-9036, lalla-palooza.com • Open 4-10pm Sunday-Thursday and 4-11pm Friday-Saturday

About the author

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Raúl Nava (he/him/él) is a freelance writer covering dining and restaurants across the Central Coast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @offthemenu831.