At Alameda’s Alley & Vine, it’s all about love of food and drink
By Lou Fancher
Chef Jason Ryczek, a co-owner with Francisco Bazo and Casey Hunt of Alley & Vine, the casual fine dining restaurant that entered the Island’s bustling cuisine scene last January, has led a life of destiny.
Having grown up on California’s Central Coast in the seaside town of Los Osos, he recalls sitting on a curb at the local farmer’s market at age 4, chomping on grilled beef back ribs. As a 10-year-old he loved tearing things apart and reassembling them — cars, computers, bikes — to learn what made them tick and about their “ingredients.” So it was only natural that he wound up in the restaurant industry.
Ryczek planned to enter the construction trade, but after visiting little seafood restaurants on Morro Bay with his family, he says he found himself wondering not about the architecture but about why the ranch dressing was so much tastier than “stuff that came in a bottle.” Eventually, his palette preoccupations overcame other interests.
“Food was where my natural curiosity sprang to life the most,” he says.
Moving from front- and back-of-house positions held as a teenager in local restaurants, Ryczek zigzagged across California, investigating the why’s and how-to’s of food in San Diego’s Red Pearl Kitchen and in Los Angeles at One Sunset, Boa Steakhouse and Artisan House. Winding up at San Francisco’s Waterbar, he met beverage director Bazo, a certified sommelier, and Hunt, the upscale restaurant’s events director. The trio formed professional and friendship bonds that remained when Ryczek in 2016 became the executive chef of Farallon, where he worked with chef/owner Mark Franz.
So when the entrepreneurial yearnings of Bazo, an 11-year Alameda resident, and similar dreams held by Hunt combined and the two friends learned through word of mouth that the owners of C’era Una Volta, a restaurant in the 3,500-square-foot space just off the main strip in Alameda’s downtown were transitioning to all catering, they thought instantly of Ryczek. Hunt says the three-person leadership team’s well-rounded backgrounds — she’s a classically trained bassoonist in addition to being a veteran in food and beverage management — allows them to collectively support the multiple facets of running a successful restaurant.
“Francisco loves to cook but focuses on front-of-house and overall operations, along with the beverage program. Jason understands things not only as a chef but from a service standpoint. And I am a planner by nature, so I ensure the logistics come together (with) cohesion and superior execution,” says Hunt.
Alley & Vine features a separate bar area, open kitchen, vine-filled outdoor patio, spacious dining room and an upstairs loft. The menu’s focus, originally planned to be entirely casual, has been maintained on classic California-style American food made with seasonal ingredients and goods supplied by local vendors while evolving in ways the team never expected in response to customers’ requests for more high-end items.
“I thought I’d be simplifying more,” Ryczec says, “but they’re the ones asking for truffles, for foie gras, wagyu, lobster and crab.”
Hunt says, “We started introducing high-end touches here and there; a caviar bite, higher-end wines by the glass, specials on the weekends that definitely weren’t inexpensive. They were all well-received. We now offer two different types of caviar by the ounce and sell close to two pounds of it a week! Same with beverages; guests are open to new varietals and are really adventurous.”
Bazo collaborates with his head bartender and the team to brainstorm craft cocktails with fanciful names such as Prickle My Fancy.
“Our cocktail menu has to have a balance of clear and brown spirits. Mezcal is very popular — (it) has a lot to offer: smooth, sweet, slightly smoky, complex,” Bazo says. “The smooth side of the mezcal and the citrus of the combination of lime, prickly pear and rounding those flavors with our habanero shrub with a nice balance of sweetness … . If you love margaritas, you’ll love our Prickle My Fancy.”
A similar approach to the wine list with a wide price range from $44 to $849 makes available playful taste opportunities — Negroamaro or Malvasia Nera — along with tried-and-true regulars that establish a firm sense of place: cabernets from Napa, Bordeaux and Italy, among others.
Ryczec still likes to get his “hands into everything” and has made his own cheese; brewed beer; created tinctures, shrubs and purées for cocktails; and harvests caviar from live sturgeon.
Asked to speak about the menu specifically, he says, “A dish is about simplicity, but the craft is putting it up on time, making the ingredients good, not muddling a highlighted ingredient in a dish by over-intensifying other flavors, using the whole animal.
“Let’s take the sturgeon. I thought about letting the fish speak to what it is: rich, comforting. It’s poached for consistency with butter, set on a platter with mashed potatoes, chard and a caviar fondue that came from that fish. It’s delicate and beautiful without doing anything crazy. Then we took the skin and braised and fried it. It puffed up and was light and crunchy. It was like snacking on a cracklin’ while floating down a river. People tasted the soulfulness of the dish and recognized the respect I had for the whole animal.”
Ryczec once thought his mother shopped at their local farmers market because the family had little money.
He knows today it was because she cared unequivocally about the quality of food the family consumed. Extending whole health beyond nutrition to include overall quality of life, Ryczec and his partners each in their own ways emphasize providing staff with proper tools — then letting people with knowledge and experience run wild with a passion for feeding others.
Claiming the final word, Ryczec says, “When your server is happy to put a plate on your table and your chef is happy to cook something, that changes the way the dish tastes. When the staff is in love with the food, guests love the food too.”