Vacaville restaurateur branches out
By Brian Hamlin
Longtime restaurateur Bob Tooke, proprietor of downtown Vacaville's 25-year-old Merchant & Main Grill & Bar, hopes his formula for good food in a comfortable atmosphere will continue to serve him in good stead at his latest culinary venture on Suisun City's revitalized waterfront.
Last week, Tooke opened the Cast Iron Grill & Bar on Main Street in the waterfront city's historic downtown. It's a showplace in the new Harbor Square center and Tooke wants it to become an integral part of what the city is calling a renaissance for the once-neglected maritime district.
Located at the corner of Solano and Main streets, the 4,500-square-foot restaurant offers views of a 40-foot outdoor fireplace to the south, a waterfront park and a refurbished Sacramento riverboat to the north.
Inside, there's a restaurant-wide mural depicting scenes from Suisun history, old-fashioned tables and chairs beneath rows of colorful hanging lights. Outdoor patio dining also is offered.
Tooke and his partner, Bill Davini, opened the new dining spot with little fanfare and were surprised when they found customers rolling into the restaurant the moment the doors opened last week.
"Menus were still being printed at quarter to five," Tooke recalled. "The next thing we knew we had a full house, just people coming in off the street. Some of them wanted a tour."
Davini said the response was gratifying but the whole process of opening a new restaurant proved a little overwhelming.
"My head's still spinning," Davini admitted.
Tooke, who's known as an innovative cook who likes to experiment with new flavors and textures whenever he has a moment to slip into the kitchen, virtually introduced calamari to downtown Vacaville and wowed diners at Merchant & Main with his Jack Daniels bread pudding dessert.
"I putz around in the kitchen until I find something I like," said Tooke, who readily admits he's anything but a classically trained chef.
Tooke still plans to make occasional forays through the kitchen door of his new waterfront restaurant, but he's leaving most of the culinary duties to executive chef Jason Johnson -- formerly executive sous of Yoshi's in Oakland -- and pastry chef Christine Gerstmar.
Diners will see some familiar dishes from Merchant & Main -- including the M&M Steak Sandwich and the aforementioned bread pudding -- but Tooke said many of the Cast Iron's menu selections will be new, including Flautas de Carnitas (pork shoulder in corn tortillas with pico de gallo); Drunken Calamari; Maple Smoked Salmon (topped with a red wine sauce); and a Canolini consisting of smoked and shredded chicken with spinach and pancetta rolled in pastry and baked in a forest mushroom cream sauce.
Basic American comfort foods, however, will be center stage at the waterfront restaurant, Tooke said.
"We want people to be comfortable here, to get to know us and come back," Tooke said. "That's our motto: 'Get comfortable at the Cast Iron Grill & Bar -- Comfortable since 2009,' We're not some freeway restaurant. We're going to rely a lot on the locals. Come in, have dinner, a nice bottle of wine, leave happy."
Comfort foods? Everything from short ribs to meat loaf and pork chops. The star of the comfort food category is, of course, mac and cheese, an upgraded version of the perennial favorite with bacon and four cheeses served hot in a cast iron pan.
For those who want to get even more comfortable, there's an extensive wine list with local and regional vintages as well as a full bar.
The Cast Iron Grill & Bar, 701 Main St., Suisun City, is open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner begins at 5 p.m. daily and a brunch is offered from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Call 425-1700.