The newest chef on Santa Cruz County’s fine-dining scene is also its youngest in 21-year-old Malik Williams, and Lily Belli gives you an introduction to his eponymous Aptos establishment along with other bits, bites and sips in her latest Eaters Digest.
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The first day of spring is Sunday, and restaurants and dining events, like spring flowers, are blossoming throughout Santa Cruz County.
In Scotts Valley, Pizza Series owner Matt Driscoll explains that the closure of his popular pop-up is actually a new beginning for his business, which is expanding to two brick-and-mortar locations. In Aptos, I met with Malik Williams, a young chef making a splash with his inaugural restaurant, Restaurant Malik Williams, which opened earlier this month. Read on to learn more about this promising new chef and the county’s newest fine-dining establishment.
This Sunday, look for a guide to special dining events throughout the county and beyond. With more than 30 local events already on the calendar, and more to be added as dates are set through the fall, this guide will ensure you don’t miss out on these unique experiences.
Attention, Detroit-style pizza lovers — Pizza Series is no longer holding pop-ups in Scotts Valley. Never fear, though: Owner Matt Driscoll was forced to temporarily halt pizza production in order to launch two brick-and-mortar restaurants, including one in Scotts Valley later this year. Recently, opportunity came knocking at Driscoll’s door in the form of restaurant developers Ray and Judy Klein, whose projects include the Enterprise Fish Company in Santa Barbara and Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. After trying Driscoll’s Detroit- and New York-style pies, they invited him to open a Pizza Series slice shop at the Treehouse food court on the Stanford University campus. The shop is set to open the first week of April.
At the same time, Driscoll is actively searching for a brick-and-mortar location in Scotts Valley, and has narrowed the search to two as-yet-undisclosed spots. “We want to stress to the Scotts Valley community that we will be back,” he says. While Driscoll regrets Pizza Series’ sudden shutdown, he promises it will return better and with an expanded menu: “We’re coming back stronger than ever and people are going to be really excited about what we have in store.” Follow along on Instagram at @the_pizza_series.
Opening a new restaurant is daunting at any age, but at 21 years old, Malik Williams, who opened his eponymous fine-dining establishment in Aptos earlier this month, is the youngest chef in the county to brave the task. High-end restaurant openings in Santa Cruz County are rare, and Restaurant Malik Williams comes on the distant heels of Mentone in Aptos in 2019 and Alderwood in Santa Cruz in 2018. It’s clear that this young chef, while inexperienced as a restaurateur, is swinging for the fences with his debut.
While Williams is young, he already has six years of professional restaurant experience under his belt. A Live Oak native, he fell in love with cooking at a young age while spending time in the kitchen with his mother making traditional Peruvian dishes like arroz con pollo and lomo saltado. At 14, he began his career as a dishwasher at Sotola Bar & Grill in Capitola Village, and within two years rose through the ranks of pantry, desserts, prep and line cook. During this time, he worked closely with chef Anthony Kresge, who became a mentor.
Eager to pursue a career in fine-dining kitchens, Williams graduated early from Santa Cruz High School. At 17, he enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, New York, regarded to be the best cooking school in the nation, with many notable alumni, including Anthony Bourdain, Cat Cora, Roy Choi, Michael Mina and many others. But according to Williams, the curriculum was “too much like school,” with not enough cooking. While Williams enjoyed the school’s proximity to New York City and all the culinary gems the metropolis has to offer, he missed the West Coast. After nine months, he dropped out and secured a job working with chef David Kinch at Manresa, Kinch’s three-Michelin-star restaurant in Los Gatos.
Working at Manresa was “brutal,” says Williams, and second only in difficulty to the opening of his restaurant. But the lessons he learned were invaluable. After working there for nine months, followed by stages at Bywater, Home and several other local restaurants, Williams decided to open his own place: “I felt like I was ready.”
Last year, he found his diamond in the rough: a derelict restaurant space on Soquel Drive in Aptos, just off the Rio Del Mar Boulevard exit and south of the bustling Aptos Village, near popular joint The Hideout. Over 10 months, Williams and his father extensively renovated the building, which had been vacant after Rio Del Mar Mexican Cuisine closed there in 2019.
Upon arrival, the hostess at Restaurant Malik Williams welcomes guests with a complimentary glass of Spanish sparkling wine. The stylish, 63-seat dining room feels fresh and inviting, incorporating natural elements like stone-topped tables, leather chairs and lawn-like turf on one wall, as well as beautiful light fixtures. From the robin’s egg-blue banquette that runs along one wall, guests can peek at the chef and his team in the elevated open kitchen. Williams promises that soon guests will be serenaded by live music from the baby grand piano in the center of the dining room, as soon as he can find the right pianist.
Restaurant Malik Williams’ menu is luxe. Black truffle finds its way into paté on the goat cheese bruschetta ($23), fried polenta under a rack of lamb chops, the vinaigrette for a steak salad, paired with the fish of the day and freshly shaved over any entree for an additional $35. Pearls of caviar decorate pan-seared scallops and flavor beurre blanc.
The cuts of meat are very generous. My aforementioned rack of lamb, a dish titled A Sheep in Tuscany ($48), included four rib chops, an enormous portion that made quite an entrance at the table when it arrived. The plate was dotted with mint chimichurri and cauliflower purée, which I wanted a bit more of. My husband’s dry-aged filet, listed as Medallions, Medallions … Oyster? ($56) was topped with a small oyster croquette and surrounded by a trio of tender scallops, over which the server delicately poured dark red beef demi-glace tableside. Both the lamb and the filet were cooked perfectly, although the server did not ask for a temperature. Also on the menu that evening was a whopping 32-ounce ribeye for at least two people, piled with morel mushrooms, for $132.
Our favorite dish of the evening was the seasonal risotto ($48). Creamy, perfectly al dente and infused with earthy mushrooms, it was served with three pan-seared scallops and a pinch of fried dill. Also on the menu but unfortunately unavailable that evening was an interesting-sounding crab and seafood sausage with a grapefruit salad ($26).
As I lingered over my glass of Alfaro 2019 Pinot Noir ($16), we enjoyed three house-made pink peppercorn macarons filled with mascarpone, the sweet cookie balanced by the floral, biting peppercorns.
The restaurant opened only two weeks ago, so some kinks are still being worked out. However, throughout our evening, the service was attentive and friendly. Our food arrived quickly and was coursed out properly — if anything, we would have liked a little more time between appetizers and entrees, the better to enjoy the evening. After all, mom and dad don’t get nights out as often as they’d like anymore.
Williams shows incredible promise with his culinary skills and vision. It requires substantial ambition and drive to create an establishment of Restaurant Malik Williams’ caliber. With such a strong opening for his inaugural venture, it’s clear Williams has an exciting career ahead of him.
Find more information and make reservations at restaurantji.com.
Tickets go live for Outstanding in the Field’s superlative farm-to-table events this Sunday, kicking off an exciting season of exclusive dining events throughout Santa Cruz County. In addition to OITF, Wines of the Santa Cruz Mountains is throwing a seven-event series of winemaker dinners, chef Diego Felix is hosting monthly South America-meets-Santa Cruz dinners on the Westside, and Chaminade’s Vine to View dinner series returns with eight events through the end of the year. I’ve collected more than 30 special dining events in a guide, out this Sunday, to help you plan through the rest of the year.
On Wednesday, join chef Karen Anne Murray, owner of Eddison & Melrose tea shop in Pacific Grove, for a free virtual event via Zoom as she spills the tea on teatime recipes and her culinary life. Hosted by Bookshop Santa Cruz, Murray will celebrate her recent cookbook, “Tea Table: Inspiring Teatime Creations for California’s Central Coast.” Register at bookshopsantacruz.com.
By next Saturday, March 26, we should all be fully recovered from any St. Patrick’s Day festivities, which means we will be ready for the annual Downtown Santa Cruz Beer March. At this pub crawl, visit 10 participating downtown businesses, including Front & Cooper, Lupulo and Cruz Kitchen & Taps, and taste featured beers from Humble Sea, Sante Adairius Rustic Ales and Alvarado Street Brewery. Tickets are $25 at Eventbrite.com.