Mihal brings a world of experience to Plaza
CHEF RUDY MIHAL opened Restaurant Rudy on Broadway this fall.
Rudy Mihal never went to culinary school – he skipped straight to some of the world’s top kitchens.
And now the chef, after intense tutelages under the likes of New York restaurant-impresario Danny Meyer, “Top Chef” host Tom Colicchio, and French celebrity-chef Daniel Boulud, along with tours through kitchens in New York, San Francisco and Italy, is finding his own voice at his eponymous eatery just off the Plaza on Broadway in a seemingly cursed location. The space has been a revolving door with Shiso, Lokal and Café 522 opening and closing within the space of a few years following Carlo Cavallo’s successful run with the first incarnation of his Meritage (which relocated down the road to a larger space on Napa Street).
Restaurant Rudy opened quietly in Sonoma in late September, treating the proverbial friends and family to diverse plates Mihal composed from his wide range of experiences.
His style is decidedly unfussy. Though you’ll find the occasional foam finishing touch or sous vide preparation for structure, Mihal uses these techniques sparingly to complete and balance dishes, and, despite French and modern influences, does not describe his food as avant-garde or haute or nouvelle – “I’m not trying to do all this crazy stuff,” he said. Also in the new American mélange are Mihal’s experiences in Italy and with Mediterranean cuisine.
One thing you’ll always find on the menu (which Mihal said will update frequently with new items rotating in and out) is handmade pasta, a happy artifact of Mihal’s time spent learning his craft at the three-Michelin-starred San Domenico in Emilia-Romagna, Italy. During his year-long apprenticeship in the internationally staffed kitchen, Mihal first met Michael White, who served as San Domenico’s sous chef and went on to fame bringing the regional Italian cuisine he learned there to New York and Chicago.
After a summer on the shore in Sicily, Mihal returned to New York in 1998, a young chef developing serious chops. He cut his teeth in the kitchen at Danny Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern, under a pre-“Top Chef” Tom Colicchio, who ran the kitchen. Colicchio likely noticed a few things about the eager young Mihal: his drive, the pedigree of his training in Italy outside the culinary school system and the bright orange New Balance sneakers he wore to the interview.
Mihal worked every station at Gramercy Tavern except pastry, and picked up little things that make big differences from both Meyer, who ran every staff meeting, and Colicchio, who might have tapped Mihal for night shifts straight off because he was tall, and hoops-fanatic Colicchio had a hole on his afternoon-league basketball team.
Rattled after 9-11, Mihal left New York and flew back to Italy to work in Sicily again, but the lessons of Gramercy Tavern still ring in his ears. In 2002, he returned to New York, at the behest of White, who was opening a new restaurant there. A year later, the call came from the Daniel Boulud organization for a restaurant opening in Palm Beach. “The next thing I knew, I drove down to Florida,” Mihal said.
Mihal, it can be said without exaggeration, is, at a relatively young age, the equivalent of a Navy Seal in restaurant openings. He’s been a part of the high-profile opening teams for Café Boulud in Palm Beach, Fiamma in SoHo, Zuppo in San Francisco and Spoonbar in Healdsburg (where he served as executive chef until last January), among others. “Openings are a walk in the park for me,” he says.
At Café Boulud, as the restaurant’s saucier, Mihal took on a wide variety of roles, and was responsible for all the sauces, stocks, braised meat and the butchering. “I learned a lot there,” Mihal said. Though the job did not come without long hours, with Mihal often unlocking at 5 a.m. and staying well into the night. “I had the keys to the kitchen,” he explained.
After his first 6 months at Café Boulud, Mihal was also put in charge of “special ops,” preparing terrines and foie gras for Boulud, one of the most esteemed chefs in the world.
After a couple of years, Mihal, having had his fill of Florida, returned to California, where he’d grown up in San Francisco’s Noe Valley, and took his first head chef role, opening Zuppa. But the urge to open his own restaurant called, though he might not have been wholly prepared at that time, and Mihal opened Odyssey in Windsor, himself. Perhaps Windsor wasn’t quite right, or any of a million other things that can go wrong with a new restaurant did, but Odyssey didn’t last despite strong reviews. “After I sold Odyssey, I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Mihal said.
The chef was comfortable in the West though, especially Sonoma County, where his mother (who he credits with being instrumental in opening Rudy) lives. He landed next in Healdsburg, helping to design the menu and opening Spoonbar at the H2 hotel.
While Mihal speaks fondly of all involved in Spoonbar and enjoyed his time there, he felt the food was not his own. “I was trying to please everyone,” Mihal remembers. “It wasn’t really what I wanted to do.”
He left on good terms last January and began the search for his own space, and when 522 Broadway became an option, he jumped on it.
The narrow space has been cleaned up and refreshed, with Mihal providing much of the labor himselfand his mother, Mary Kay Hartley, steering the design. There’s seating for 40 inside and an additional 30 can be accommodated on the back patio, weather permitting.
They considered leaving the large chandeliers made from broken windshields that hung from the ceiling when the place was Café 522, but Mihal’s mother brought in a feng shui expert who advised against it.
The overall look is clean if not a bit a drab for the space. Touches, such as a line-up of small robot figures made by one of Mihal’s old friends from Brooklyn (whom he used to do graffiti murals with) along the top of the long service window beg to be picked up and add a sense of playfulness.
Mihal has experimented with the menu, using seasonal farmer’s market ingredients and swapping in more adventurous fare with menu stalwarts such as reliable steaks and the handmade pasta. He’s offered at times his house-made charcuterie platter, with terrines, rillettes, mortadella and other delicacies he’s learned over the years.
Most of all, he’s trying to find where he and his restaurant fit into Sonoma. The restaurant recently expanded its hours to offer lunch and brunch Wednesday through Sunday and Mihal will begin serving a special fried chicken dinner every Wednesday night, which will consist of fried chicken, greens and dessert for $20, starting next week.
The restaurant serves beer and wine, but a full liquor license may come later. The evolving wine list is limited but offers an international reach that compliments the food.
“I take pride that I’ve seen a lot in the kitchen,” Mihal said. But right now he says he’s “just trying to figure out what the town wants.”