For many who visit Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula, a meal at Nanci & Jimella’s Café & Cocktails in Ocean Park is as mandatory as digging for razor clams. For us, it’s a trip down a culinary memory lane as well as tasty new adventures with some of the freshest Pacific Northwest cuisine available.
For 22 years, Chef Jimella Lucas and Pastry Chef Nanci Main ran The Ark Restaurant, a legendary fine dining eatery on the Peninsula and, for six, they operated the Café, blazing trails in what is now known as the regional farm- and sea-to-table movement. NY Times Food Writer James Beard wrote in the introduction to the first of Jimella’s and Nanci’s many Ark cookbooks that, in his 80 years of life, he’d never seen a restaurant “that glorified the great gifts from the sea, nor the fine vegetables, or the wild mushrooms, or the small fruits or the game” in the way Jimella and Nanci did.
Three years ago, after a courageous battle with cancer, Chef Jimella passed away. While the universe lost a brilliant culinary light, Nanci continues Jimella’s tradition of delicious food at Nanci & Jimella’s Café & Cocktails. Chef Katie Witherbee, who trained under both Jimella and Nanci, brings many of Jimella’s and Nanci’s original recipes to life.
The Café is committed to The Ark Restaurant’s pioneering practice of working with the best ingredients from local sources. For instance, local fisherman Gary has been selling uber-fresh fish to Nanci and Jimella for 25 years. Veronica, a local forager, haunts secret wild places on the peninsula to provide the Café with wild mushrooms, blackberries, goose tongue greens, sea beans, fiddlehead ferns, and more.
Nanci also continues The Ark’s long-standing (and award-winning) tradition of green practices. They compost all organic material for the restaurant’s garden and recycle glass and metal.
Like at The Ark Restaurant, the atmosphere at the Café is pure Nanci and Jimella—warm and intimate with lots of twinkly lights, small wooden tables with olive motif tablecloths in yellows and oranges, and courteous and attentive service. The walls are decorated with historic pictures of Jimella and Nanci and The Ark Restaurant as well as lovely prints. A third of the restaurant is a cocktail bar where diners at small tables enjoy not only the full menu, but also an extensive local wine list and artisan cocktails from the Café’s talented mixologist. When we recently dined at the Café, the cocktail special was a ginger martini.
Diners delight in finding Nanci Main front-and-center at the Café. She continually circulates greeting customers, serving plates and bussing tables, and ensuring that wait staff are paying attention and that every meal is top notch.
Homemade Rolls, Garlicky Caesar, Fresh Seafood
Our meals certainly met Nanci’s demanding standards. We began with warm, freshly baked dill rolls served with soft butter. While dill isn’t RFT Editor Anne Weaver’s favorite flavor, even she devoured these gems. The rolls were soft with just the right tooth with a fresh hint of dill. It proved the perfect start to our meal.
Knowing that portions are generous at the Café, we opted to split a Caesar salad. Our waitress brought the salads on two separate plates–romaine lettuce topped with wonderfully crispy housemade sourdough croutons. The salad was lightly dressed with Jimella’s creamy, garlicky Caesar dressing and accented with shaved egg and pecorino. Caesar is one of Anne’s favorite dishes and she declared, “This is the best Caesar salad I’ve ever eaten.”
Since it was spring and spring King salmon is legendary in the Northwest, the broiled salmon was Anne’s entrée choice and it was a good one. A large, perfectly-cooked filet arrived topped with a brightly-flavored basil aioli. It was served with roasted Yukon Gold potatoes and plenty of veggies–fresh green beans, yellow and green zucchini, and strips of red bell pepper—all cooked to al dente perfection.
I ordered the seafood pasta and it was just the briny comfort food I was seeking. Prawns and scallops were lightly sautéed in butter and garlic and deglazed with sherry. The seafood was combined with chewy torchio artisan pasta (curly, hollow pasta) and mushrooms and finished with cream and Parmesan cheese. It was all I could do to resist licking the plate!
Despite boxing up half of our meals, we couldn’t miss ordering dessert. Nanci Main’s classic desserts are legendary. Anne ordered Swedish Cream, a thick, silken sour cream custard topped with a sweet-sour wild mountain blackberry sauce from Nanci’s private berry stash.
I ordered a coffee and the Carmelo, soft caramel and chocolate caramel spooned over sponge cake,
topped with piles of whipped cream and served in a cone-shaped glass sitting in a bowl of ice. Both desserts were memorably delicious.
Sadly, the end of the culinary era created by Jimella Lucas and Nanci Main is right around the corner. Nanci has been in the restaurant business since the 1980s and she’s ready to do something different. Her mom is 92 and Nanci wants to spend more time with her. So Nanci & Jimella’s Café & Cocktails is for sale. We suggest you get there quickly, while you can still dine on some of the finest and freshest food you’ll find in the Pacific Northwest. – Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT editor; photos Anne Weaver, RFT Editor
Nanci & Jimella’s Café & Cocktails
21742 Pacific Way
Ocean Park, WA 98640