11 Oct Cocktail Chef Matthew Biancaniello Crafts Hyper-Local Liquid Tasting Menu At Mon-Li In Malibu
By Joshua Lurie, Forbes
For the past 17 years, renowned bartender Matthew Biancaniello would go “shopping” in Malibu’s Solstice Canyon. He traversed creeks on his own, and more recently with his twin sons. A couple years ago, they turned down a creek toward the beach and found a treasure trove of nasturtiums. He’d return frequently to source nasturtiums and nasturtium pods for salads, garnishing cocktails, infusing gins, and muddling. He also started picking colorful cactus fruit. “The whole time I didn’t realize this was my future bar,” Biancaniello says from Mon-Li, his hotly anticipated cocktail-fueled destination on the grounds of Calamigos Beach Club.
The five-acre beach club has been used for guests of Calamigos Guest Ranch, a 300-acre property that the Gerson family has owned since 1937 and is a 15-minute drive deeper into the Santa Monica Mountains. The northwest corner of the beach club’s hacienda style building features a 12-seat bar strung with drying wild herbs that double as Biancaniello’s mise en place. The patio houses 4 x 10 wood beds that Geri and Steven Miller from The Cook’s Garden by HGEL installed, along with hillside gardens.
Biancaniello is a “cocktail chef” who earned acclaim for his market-driven drinks at The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel’s Library Bar, wrote a book called “Eat My Drink,” and hosted a cocktail travel show called Good Spirits that aired on A&E.
He held a pop-up upstairs at the Victorian, a Santa Monica bar from Garner Gerson, Paulo Daguiar, and Val Caceres. “They’re the last people I thought I would be partnered with because the bars they’re doing are very high-volume,” Biancaniello says. That changed when he ran into Gerson, who said they were planning something “different” and chef-driven at the Beach Club. “What I really expressed to them was that I would really love to do more of a liquid tasting menu,” he says. “They loved that idea.” Now they’re partners in Mon-Li, named for Garner Gerson’s mother.
Biancaniello sources 25% of ingredients from the property or from the grounds of a 200-square-foot Topanga Canyon cabin that doubles as an office and crash pad. He’s looking to bump up that ratio even more once he gets the systems in place. The plan is to turn over the beds quarterly. He’s even considering a quail coop to supply eggs.
He supplements remaining ingredients from farmers markets: Calabasas on Saturday, Santa Monica on Saturday, Santa Monica on Wednesday, and sometimes Larchmont Village on Sunday. These market trips fuel the rotating first course with ingredients like mushrooms, Comice pear, jujubes, and sea urchin.
No matter what, Biancaniello makes the most of his ingredients. Consider cactus fruit, which is plentiful on property. “Talk about sustainability,” Biancaniello says. Vivid magenta cactus fruit factors into vinegar and fruit chutney for a squash dish with passion fruit curry. The fruit also helps fuel the bread starter, an alcoholic infusion, and a granita for his sea urchin course.
The property also grows three different types of sage, wild bay leaf, wood sorrel, lemon verbena, fennel, Cuban oregano, and five kinds of mint. Green walnuts form the backbone for nocino in Smith & Cross rum.
His passion fruit vine has been prolific on an unprecedented level, already yielding 20 fruit. Biancaniello credits the temperate climate, marine layer, and most of all, pollination from his bees. That’s right, he keeps a colony on property. Biancaniello’s building an ecosystem at Calamigos Beach Club.
Each menu consists of 12 liquid courses and 5 to 6 dishes that primarily focus on ultra-seasonal vegetables and seafood. The menu changes monthly, and guests won’t receive a printed copy until the end, to avoid spoilers.
Biancaniello prefers a “labor intensive and detailed” approach that requires constant exploration. Instead of serving a typical cheese course, he presents bread and cheese vermouths for an early course. He drops big chunks of Parmesan, rind and all, into a bottle of Dolin Blanc vermouth. Biancaniello isn’t a baker, but he does bake loaves of Portuguese-style bread using a cactus fruit starter. This is all just to make croutons to infuse in another vermouth bottle. The Parmesan vermouth delivers umami-rich pungency that balances with the bread vermouth’s challah-like sweetness.
He mulls a possible goat cheese dish. Biancaniello visits Angeles Crest Creamery near Palmdale twice a month to source goat’s milk and goat cheese, with each round trip taking more than two hours. “For the first dish, I have pear, goat milk, fig bourbon, cactus fruit vinegar. I’m thinking of doing pine nuts.” On the farm, he also picks up tiny piñon pine cones. “I have a take on my eggnog, but it’s with ogo seaweed, bourbon, bananas, cream, and the pine cone sits in the middle and I light it on fire. I add this goat’s milk sugar.” The fragrant pine needles may garnish mushroom pate.
Biancaniello finds inspiration everywhere. He uses sliced squash and onions in a phyllo, leek, and egg pie using his grandmother’s recipe. When stinging nettles come into season, he’ll switch to plasto, a crispy cornmeal pie co-starring feta cheese and onions that originated in Kastraki, his great grandmother’s northern Greek village.
For seafood, Biancaniello sources from Cape Seafood and Wild Local Seafood at weekly farmers market, and sea urchin from Sea Stephanie Fish in Santa Barbara.
Biancaniello also ferments beer from wild herbs and atypical ingredients like shrimp, sea beans, and smoked hay. Yes, the alfalfa hay came from a feed store in Agoura Hills. Each beer registers about 6% ABV.
The hay beer goes with an oyster. Rosa tequila aged in rose barrels goes in the bottom of the oyster shell. Biancaniello makes a mignonette with apple cider vinegar, onion, turmeric and chia seeds, plus goat crème fraiche and pickled green almonds. Biancaniello, a master of understatement, calls this preparation “very simple, but really good.”
At the end of the meal, Biancaniello serves stovetop brewed Greek coffee featuring frothy chanterelle corn cream. The other half of the cup holds Cynar flavored with candy cap mushrooms, figs, and jujubes.
Occasionally, Biancaniello does source an ingredient from overseas. He imports sea moss from Saint Lucia, an island he visited while filming Good Spirits. The dried algae are traditionally used in milkshakes. He puts it in mezcal with white balsamic, sparkling Sauvignon Blanc and huacatay and garnish it with peacock feathers. Of course he does.
After last year’s devastating Thomas Fire, forager friend Pascal Baudar scraped ashes from an oak tree, which will become a garnish on Biancaniello’s signature hot buttered rum.
Biancaniello set up Mon-Li so he could technically do everything himself, but did bring in two chefs to make the experience “a little more elevated.” Chef Jason Park previously collaborated with Biancaniello on alcoholic oyster and ice cream ice cream pop-ups at Maru. He now lives in San Francisco, but flies down a few days a week to help with the launch. Biancaniello also hired Jonathan Arocha, a chef he met while consulting on a Pasadena project who now helps with R&D. He says, “I’ve always loved working with chefs because I feel I can present an idea, they have the skill to do it, then I can add on top of it.”
For Biancaniello, sustainability also extends to his personal life. Mon-Li is only open on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. He is open to Tuesday and Wednesday buyouts, but plans to devote Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays to spend time with his twin sons. After all, they have many more creeks to explore together.