By Vicki Paris Goodman
Call me uncool, for I have never before heard the term “gastrobar.” But that’s what The Factory calls itself. And I think I get it.
The friendly new eatery in Bixby Knolls, with its decidedly eclectic menu, excellent service and boutique list of unfamiliar beers and wines, asserts an innovative and welcoming personality all its own. Committed to the highest-quality organic ingredients, “sustainably grown” meats, seafood and produce, owner Natalie Gutenkauf clearly cares what she serves her customers.
At once a restaurant and sports bar (college basketball fans were avidly viewing a Final Four game during our visit), the clientele ranged from couples and families occupying tables to young 20-somethings gathered at the bar. And one has only to glance at the menu, the beverage board, the special events announcements and the wall art to tell that a lot of thought went into making this a special place where we’ll want to dine again and again.
Wait. I’m getting ahead of myself. What about the food?
Yes, let’s talk about the cuisine, which fancies itself part-Spanish, offering up tapas ($4–$9), Paella ($18) and Spanish cheeses and olives, with lots of other interesting items thrown into the mix. For example, you can indulge in Seared Tilapia ($15) or Ahi ($18), a Veggie Pot Pie ($12), sausages cooked in beer ($15) and served with Brussels sprouts (my favorite, but when did you ever see them in a restaurant?), or the biggest, plumpest, most action-packed burger– “The Happy Cow”– imaginable.
As a matter of fact, Sam ordered the Happy Cow ($13), with its big, juicy organic 10-ounce patty, onion straws, bacon, avocado, Manchego cheese and spicy mustard, all layered carefully onto a lightly toasted bun. Imagine the arrival of a 6” tall “tower” of potential messiness as you consider how best to tackle the delectable affair. The burger arrived plated with Sam’s choice of fruit, a crunchy Apple Cranberry Coleslaw, or Spanish Orzo Salad. A first-class burger of exceptional quality and flavor! A tip: I would take the mustard on the side and use it sparingly so as not to overpower the smoky flavor of the Manchego cheese.
Not to minimize the slaw, however. It was very tasty with its coarsely chopped fresh cabbage, dried cranberries and big chunks of apple. And since the orzo pasta salad sounded intriguing, we ordered the additional side for just $1.50. It had finely chopped cilantro, tomatoes, sunflower seeds, small bits of the Manchego cheese, roasted fresh corn kernels cut off the cob, and a lemon olive oil dressing. Very nice.
I, on the other hand, had a terrible time deciding (not unusual), but finally settled on the Garlic Thyme Chicken ($15), comfort food for the discriminating palate? A beautiful almost-boneless breast, with a drummette “stump” attached, was glazed with the fragrant garlic thyme sauce. It sat atop a pile not of Italian pasta, but rather of voluptuous udon noodles, yes. The noodles came lightly tossed in butter and parsley. Just delicious!
As if we hadn’t ordered enough, we added a tapas-size cup of Truffle Lobster Bisque ($2 or $5 for a bowl) for good measure. Actually, we just couldn’t pass it up. The soup was fine and rich with crunchy buttery croutons.
As for the unusual list of some 30-odd mostly obscure wines and beers, Sam had taken a chance on the Jamaica Red ($5.50) from Mad River Brewery. It was a terrific bold amber with a balanced bite.
As I sat back reflecting on how satisfying our meal had been, and thinking about what interesting menu items we might sample on future visits, Sam suggested we order dessert. Thinking he must surely have taken leave of his senses, I replied, “Okay, what would you like?”
At The Factory, this is a loaded question. The dessert menu is among the most creative I’ve seen. There was the Beer & Pretzels ($7)– vanilla ice cream drenched in a particular variety of beer with a big chocolate-covered pretzel. Or consider the Port Float ($6.50), consisting of vanilla ice cream floating in port wine and chocolate.
But Sam wanted the Raspberry Tart ($7.50), a little common I thought, mildly disappointed. That is, until I tasted it. It was a fabulous, flaky pastry crust with a “checkerboard” arrangement of whole, fresh raspberries and toasty custard inside, laid atop swirls of chocolate and crystallized caramel sauces, and served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It was just so good.
Aside from its indoor tables and bar area, The Factory also offers outdoor patio seating with comfy cushions and outdoor heaters. With summer coming, the patio will soon be especially inviting.
With the addition of The Factory to its “restaurant scene,” Bixby Knolls continues to establish itself as a culinary destination. How exciting for those of us who live there!
The Factory gastrobar is located at 4020 Atlantic Ave. in Bixby Knolls. Wine and beer are available. Call the restaurant at (562) 595-4020 for their generous schedule of Happy Hours, during which tapas, beers and wines are specially priced.