Not every chef is thrilled to honor special diet requests. But when I arrived for dinner at Bistro West, the whole kitchen crew was excited to serve me a special three-course vegan meal they’d dreamed up in my honor. For somebody who’s used to asking for a dish off the regular menu with this, this and this left out, I appreciated their effort but was a tad embarrassed that they went to all the trouble.
At Bistro West, Chef John Miller loves the challenge of going off the menu and doing something new. Vegan? Vegetarian? Gluten-free? No problem.
Bistro West is one of two restaurants adjoining the West Inn and Suites in Carlsbad, California. The hotel is only a few blocks from a beach that’s much quieter than those 45 minutes south in San Diego.
Much of the menu is what Miller describes as “international comfort food with a California influence.” At first glance, much of it looks pretty familiar: burgers, pastas, pizzas. But look closer and you’ll notice that some sections of the menu are divided into “classic” and “chef’s creations.” For example, you could get a classic fettucine alfredo, or the chef’s mushroom ravioli featuring Hokkaido mussels specially flown in from Japan twice a week.
Many ingredients come from the nearby farm the restaurant owns. Miller uses as many of these fresh, organic foods as possible. “Getting people to accept kale can be tricky,” he says. They pick the kale young so it’s as tender as possible.
Many diners find beets more accessible. The beet salad — red and gold beets, baby greens, apples, walnuts, orange tarragon vinaigrette and goat cheese – is a Bistro West classic, Miller says. For dessert, the giant slabs of mud pie are a favorite. Customers also love to try sampler plates of three different desserts.
General manager Justin Stark has expanded the wine and cocktail program in his two years with the restaurant. Some additions are old-fashioned cocktails inspired by his love for New Orleans, and some are modern and inspired by the farm. They use seasonal farm-grown ingredients in drinks like the tomato basil margarita and the chocolate mint mojito.
The Making of a Chef
Miller uses quite a few Japanese ingredients in his dishes. It’s only fitting, since Japan is a key part of his story. He has a B.A. in Japanese. While he was studying abroad in Japan, he ran out of money. The mother of the family he was doing a home stay with found him a job in a restaurant. “After that I knew what I was going to do,” he said.
He finished his Japanese degree, then got classical French training at the renowned Culinary Institute of America. In addition to working in kitchens, Miller has also taught in classrooms. Until he took the position at Bistro West last year, he taught Asian cooking at the culinary school at the Art Institute of California — San Diego. Some of his favorite cuisines to cook are Japanese, Thai and Indonesian.
“I love working with things I haven’t done before,” Miller says. He’s currently most interested in developing his North African, Spanish and southern Italy repertoire.
The older of Miller’s two children seems to be following in his footsteps. “He’s had a knife in his hand since he was four.” The eleven year-old son recently announced he wants to be a chef, too.
A Local Secret
Bistro West has been open for almost ten years, and has strong local support. “Lots of folks have been coming every week since we opened,” Miller said. On their busier nights, Bistro West feeds 500 people.
But other locals are still discovering the restaurant. “We’re an island here,” Stark says of the parcel of land containing the hotel, two restaurants, convenience store and gas station. “Once people come here they say they can’t believe we’re here and they didn’t know it.” Word of mouth is by far their strongest marketing tool, Stark said.
It doesn’t hurt that San Diego’s North County is experiencing a big culinary push. About 50 new restaurants opened in North County in the last two years, Stark said, including many in Oceanside and Encinitas.
About 40 percent of dishes on the current menu are inherited from past chefs, Miller said. He’s been slowly phasing in new items, usually through the happy hour menu. The bistro does a big daily happy hour business with many $8 specials on food, wine and cocktails.
“Everything new is heavily vetted,” he said. Miller enlists the help of servers and customers, especially his weekly regulars. He’ll bring them a small portion of a new dish and request feedback. “I don’t think we’ve ever got one single thing perfect the first time,” he said, emphasizing the importance of listening to what people say to get his dishes right. “Everyone’s involved.”
Bistro West goes offsite to participate in local fairs and festivals. And many people come onsite for special events, especially for holiday parties in December and January. Throughout December, they often do one lunch banquet and two dinner banquets per day, Miller said. The restaurant also has two patios which can be rented out for private parties. “The patios are dog-friendly, which is huge for our locals,” Stark said.
As I ate my three-course vegan meal, I talked to several servers, Chef Miller, and two managers. All seemed to have a love for food and working together. My server, Daniel, is studying to be a hospital dietitian. One manager, Shawntá, loves photographing the food for social media posts. They are true hospitality professionals, dedicated to keeping their customers happy and comfortable. Which is why their busiest nights draw 500 guests. Stark summed it up: “Execute flawlessly and they will tell others.”