By Maria Desiderata Montana
Senior Food and Wine Critic
It was just a few years ago when Dennis Stein, co-owner of Sea Rocket Bistro, developed a love for cooking and started a small herb garden on his patio. “I was interested in gardening and wanted to see how food grows,” he said. “It’s almost a spiritual experience to see food created out of nothing.”
Gardening a few herbs on the patio led to Stein visiting farmers markets and local farms. “Getting to know farmers really helped me put down roots in San Diego, and develop a sense of community,” said Stein. “Elena Rivellino (co-owner and general manager) and I have both long been interested in caring for the environment we live in, so when we decided to partner up on a restaurant, it was clear that we wanted to operate in an environmentally responsible way, and that meant buying our food from nearby sources.”
Sea Rocket Bistro is a small neighborhood restaurant in North Park with about 40 percent of its menu items directly from small farms and artisans, delivered on regular delivery routes or sent by UPS (cheese, for example). Stein and staff initially visit farms a couple of times on a “get to know basis” in order to develop a relationship, then visits are occasional.
The menu is entirely based on what is available seasonally and locally. “Depending what we find, including sea urchin, sardines, lamb, macadamia nuts, carrots and chard for example, we work with an experienced chef to develop recipes we like,” explained Stein. At present, it is a collaborative effort between the owners and chef Christy Samoy to create a unique and environmentally friendly cuisine.
Stein purchases sheep from Megan McDowell, who farms just north of Temecula. The sheep and cows are grazed on government-leased land, and on the fields of hay growers in the area. McDowell also gets pork for Sea Rocket from the Phillips family in Santa Rosa where they raise pastured pigs. The pigs are fed a mix of greens and grains, as well as whatever they get in the field. The sheep and cows just eat the grass.
The fish come partly from San Diego fishermen who deliver, and partly from Chesapeake Fish, the local distributor located at the G Street pier. Chesapeake helps Stein fill in the times when fish from the fishermen isn’t available, which is a good part of the winter and spring. Lobster comes in locally from fisherman John Law, and other fish varieties, namely white sea bass and yellowtail, come from fishermen Romolo and Mario. “Every fish has its special source,” said Stein. “The sea urchin comes from Mitch, sardines from Everingham Brothers, and shellfish from Carlsbad Aquafarms.”
According to Stein, large-scale organic farms do not qualify as farm-to-table. “Our first choice is to by from small farms, our second choice is to buy from large organic farms, and our last choice is to buy conventional agriculture, he said.
Fortunately, Stein hasn’t had to choose between locally grown with pesticides, and not locally grown that is organic. “That would be a hard choice because most small farm and local production is organic,” he said. “When I say “organic”, I mean pesticide free. Few of the purveyors we deal with are actually certified organic by the USDA. That’s a very expensive certification and small producers can’t always afford it. But the reality is that they operate in an organic way, just without certification.”
The atmosphere, complete with photos and videos of the farms and fishermen, is totally relaxed, not pretentious, and a great value for your money. Stein not only cares about the environment and where the food comes from, he also cares about the customer’s pocketbook. Due to the economic crunch, he’s recently added an entire section of the menu to sandwiches that are $10 or less. Stein also recently added a $2 tapas menu where guests can order small portions of a variety of tasty entrees without spending a heap of money.
Sea Rocket is a great place to savor local craft beers and California wines, and a cask-conditioned beer is an optimal start to your meal. Good eats include the pole-caught American tuna melt with house made aioli, Winchester gouda (award-winning cheese from north of Temecula) and bread from Cardamom Bakery (located next door). Other great options include the whole grilled sardines caught off the coast of San Diego, served with a drizzle of avocado oil, infused with lemon zest, and a sprinkle of salt, the grass-fed lamb burger, or an open-faced mushroom medley sandwich. If you really want to splurge, go for the scallops with smoked mashed potatoes, or the paella.
For dessert, I love the Macadamia Pie made with organic macadamia nuts from Jim Russell in Fallbrook. This pie is so delicious, you’ll definitely be convinced that dessert should be a main course. Equally luscious are the strawberries and honey, which are organic and local, immersed in a silky coconut cream sauce. Even the Mexican coffee from Caffe Calabria is organic and served French-press style. “The Italian roast and decaf aren’t organic,” said Stein. “We’d like to eventually find some free trade, shade-grown organic coffee, but that’s a project that is still down the road a bit.”
Most of the people who eat at Sea Rocket are regulars who live in the community. Stein shows a movie once a month on the projection screen at the large communal table, with special showings of movies about food and ocean environmental issues. Stein stays involved with various local community groups and non-profit organizations, as well as hosting fundraisers and events with them. He also helps to reduce the impact on the environment including composting all the restaurant’s green waste at Birney Elementary School and using biodegradable trash bags that are made out of corn. (See additional environmental tips below.)
Stein operates a San Diego blog with an extensive collection of videos of food purveyors from around the region. Check it out at www.searocketbistro.com.
Maria Desiderata Montana is an award-winning food and wine journalist, editor, and published author based in San Diego. She gained an appreciation of European cuisine from her parents who were born and raised in Calabria, Italy. Visit her website at www.sandiegofoodfinds.com
Other environmentally friendly tips from co-owner Dennis Stein of Sea Rocket Bistro:
– Use biodegradable disposable utensils (made of plants) and plates (paper) when working off site.
– Use Recon Recycling for non-compostable waste.
– Hire employees who live near the restaurant to avoid long commutes. Stein’s total combined employee miles driven per day are under 20.
– Use green cleaning products including Dr. Bronner’s soap (from Escondido, so it’s local), vinegar as a cleaner, and baking soda as a scrubber.
– Use energy-efficient fans to reduce use of air conditioner.
– Purchase local and organic food to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and other environmental impacts.
– Support community organizations such as Food Not Lawns that encourage people to plant food gardens instead of lawns in their yards.
– Don’t use bottled water, use filtered tap water.
– Be conscious of water use and avoid wasting it.
– Avoid Styrofoam as much as possible.