April 2, 2019 – Alvarado Street’s influx of superb chef-driven restaurants that are at once casual in atmosphere and serious in their from-scratch techniques and elevated sourcing will see an especially big bump this week when Alta Bakery and Café opens in the historic Cooper-Molera Adobe complex.
Located at the top of Alvarado where it and four other streets—Polk, Jefferson, Pearl and Munras—meet, Alta offers an exciting intersection of the property’s past history and the new directions modern restaurants are taking.
Likewise, the gorgeous space itself and its inventive food reflect an intersection of the very personal—and luckily for guests, very exceptional—experiences and influences of Alta’s partner-culinary director Ben Spungin, formerly executive pastry chef at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar, Bernardus Lodge and Restaurant 1833 and his Alta Group partners—director of operations P.J. Clark and developer Kirk Probasco—and their partner in the innovative public-private shared use management of the property, the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
In a window on Polk Street, Spungin introduces passersby to the Cooper-Molera property’s namesake Captain Juan Bautista “John” Rodgers Cooper, a merchant ship master who built his home on the site in 1832, with one of his signature chocolate installations, an ornate edible working cuckoo clock, decorated with a nautical theme, including a whale, bird and an octopus.
Once inside, locals who may remember the quaint but cramped Cooper-Molera museum gift shop where they picked up their Christmas in the Adobes tickets will experience something totally different: brilliant light bouncing from the two-feet-thick white adobe interior walls, a gleaming Big Sur redwood counter and a glass pastry case imported from Italy.
Inside the pastry case, visitors will find more chocolate, including whimsical references property’s early history—confections molded from bolts and tools found on the grounds, which with their dusting of cocoa “rust” look just like the actual items.
In the morning (hours will initially run from 7am to 5pm) Alta will offer a concise a la carte menu and an array of morning pastries such as donuts, scones and croissants—with the focus for the croissants, at least at first, being well-executed but classic plain and chocolate.
“We want to start with really great quality but keep it simple,” Spungin says.
Still, he expects Alta will make a lot of donuts, and he’s already imagining using the onsite herb garden to over time veer into the realm of chocolate dipped donuts with lemon verbena cream filling, and others containing lavender, bacon, miso or strawberry.
“There are endless things we can do with donuts,” Spungin says.
The a la carte breakfast items will include toasts made from breads baked inhouse each morning, including the “obligatory avocado toast” and more unique spreads like a chai almond-peanut butter from Big Spoon Roasters of Durham, North Carolina, Spungin’s home town, and ricotta from Bellweather Farms. Homemade granola served with Straus Greek yogurt, and an egg bake made with stewed tomatoes, herbs and sourdough will round out the breakfast offerings.
The coffee program will be led by Alta manager Kali Grant, who has a passion for the drink and worked previously for Clark in Sonoma. Alta will use Tazzina Coffee from Santa Cruz for its espresso drinks and also sell its beans by the bag.
Head baker Matt Somerville, who was Big Sur Bakery’s head baker for nearly 10 years, will also bake loaves to take home. Echoing Spungin’s intent to keep things simple to start, Somerville plans to offer three breads at first, a predominantly white sourdough (with some rye and whole wheat), a rye and an heirloom California loaf, with flours coming from Coke Farms of San Juan Bautista and Central Milling of Petaluma and Utah. Eventually, he also plans to offer a rotating daily fourth variety.
Come afternoon, Somerville and the rest of the Alta culinary team, which includes Indelisa Zarate and opening help from Ron Mendoza, who is opening his own Ad Astra Bread company in Seaside in a few months, Matt Millea and Quinn Thompson, will be bringing out three pizzas—initially a wild mushroom, a margherita and a cheese-less veggie, all baked in the bakery’s new Wood Stone gas-fired pizza and bread oven, embedded with a bit of Big Sur jade, for “good luck,” Spungin says.
The lunch menu will also include a soup, three salads, including unusual takes on kale, little gem and mixed greens as well as panini sandwiches and veggie wraps served with garlic and herb fries that Spungin learned to make from Bernardus exec chef Cal Stamenov.
But the addictive pièce de resistance is sure to be a fried chicken sandwich Somerville calls “the world’s greatest,” prepared with with a siracha mayonaise, cabbage slaw, bread and butter pickles and cabbage slaw, and mostly likely served on an olive oil brioche roll, although it was still in development on Tuesday.
“I don’t see anyone doing it and I love it, so we’re going to make it happen,” Spungin says of the fried chicken sandwich. “It’s going to be super delicious.
And back to the pastry case, afternoon will also bring treats like butterscotch pudding, chocolate cremeux, passionfruit mousse with green tea cake, cookies, pot de creme and tarts.
The dining format will be counter service, and a short list of wines, beers and kombucha will be offered. Pricing will be aimed at accessibly.
“We want it to be approachable. We don’t want it to be fancy, we want it to be welcoming to everyone,” Spungin says.
Alta is the building’s second turn as a bakery, following Pioneer Bakery, which French immigrant Honore Escolle opened there in 1869.
Interpretive signs describing the bakery’s history, the historic Cooper family cattle brands that decorate the walls and the labels on Alta’s house-made jams and infused olive oils, the orchards outside and other aspects of the site’s history, are threaded throughout the restaurant and its grounds, echoing the exhibits in the museum in the next-door former Cooper home.
But Pioneer Bakery’s guests likely never got a chance to sit in the beautiful adjacent indoor seating area, once the home of a previous owner, the Diaz family, or amid the fruit trees and herbs in the courtyard, both of which the Alta partners are offering to their guests. And they also probably didn’t have the chance to have their food delivered to their home by a local business like Green Pedal Couriers.
“I’ve helped other companies open a lot of restaurants and I’ve always thought they were going to be great. And when I was opening my own restaurant, I knew it was going to be great. But this is going to be amazing,” says Clark.
Alta Bakery + Cafe • 502 Polk St., Monterey • www.altamonterey.com
SARAH WOOD—founding editor and publisher of Edible Monterey Bay—has had a life-long passion for food, cooking, people and our planet.
She planted her first organic garden and cared for her first chicken when she was in elementary school in a farming region of Upstate New York.
Wood spent the early part of her career based in Ottawa, Canada, working in international development and international education. After considering culinary school, she opted to pursue her loves for writing, learning about the world and helping make it a better place by obtaining a fellowship and an MA in Journalism from New York University.
While working for a daily newspaper in New Jersey, she wrote stories that helped farmers fend off development and won a state-wide public service award from the New Jersey Press Association for an investigative series of articles about a slumlord who had hoodwinked ratings agencies and investment banks into propping him up with some early commercial mortgage securitizations. The series led Wood to spend several years in financial journalism, most recently, as editor-in-chief of the leading magazine covering the U.S. hedge-fund industry.
Wood could not be happier to now be writing and editing articles about the Monterey Bay foodshed and the amazing people who help make it so vibrant and diverse. And, after spending much of her adult life gardening on fire escapes, she’s very glad to be planting in the ground again.
Wood lives with her husband, Rob Fisher, a fourth-generation Californian, and young daughter in Carmel Valley. Their favorite meal is a picnic dinner at Pt. Lobos State Reserve.