A two-burner stove and a griddle at the back of a rural country bar isn’t most chefs’ idea of a dream kitchen. But for wandering Mark Malicki, who cooks at Bodega’s Casino Bar & Grill four nights a week, it’s certainly a happy home.
Casino, a 72-year-old bar, operates as a watering hole and de facto town square for tiny Bodega. Owner Evelyn Casini contracts out food service to Malicki and other chefs when he’s off. It’s a pop-up restaurant like no other, and for Malicki it’s as good a gig as the talented, iconoclastic chef has ever had.
“I’ve never been happier at a job,” says Malicki.
In spite of its humble surroundings, in many respects Casino is a chef’s dream of complete freedom. Seasonality, bursts of inspiration and plain happenstance are the driving forces behind Malicki’s cooking at Casino. His menu changes daily. He often dreams up the next night’s dinner as he drives the country roads from his home in Petaluma. Once, he saw a thicket of wild fennel growing on the side of the road, cut a few stalks, and used them to skewer whole roasted fish. Sometimes a customer will call and ask what’s for dinner. If nothing’s planned, Malicki simply asks what the caller wants to eat and builds a menu on that.
When I talked to Malicki last Tuesday, he had no idea what his menu on Thursday would contain, other than Gleason Ranch pork shanks. I returned Thursday and saw what he’d created: late summer corn soup with burrata and first-of-the-season chanterelles, wild boar prosciutto with Kashiwase peaches and arugula, roast pork shanks and trotters with scarlet runner beans and French fillet beans, whole roasted Bolinas rock cod with wild fennel, a plate of Barhi dates, pomegranate, Tempranillo grapes and Mt. Tam cheese, and pound cake with fig gratin for dessert.
Definitely better than stale pretzels and Beer Nuts.
Malicki, who at 52 has a droll sense of humor, thick glasses and a crooked smile, started cooking out of necessity growing up in New Haven, Conn. His mother died when he was 12, and since his bereaved father wasn’t about to pick up pots and pans and start cooking, the young Malicki took over. Eventually he took his skills to New York City in the early 1980s, and to a Manhattan that had yet to lose its dicey edge and where an apartment on the Upper West Side rented for under $300.
He started cooking for fashion photographers, earning in a day what he’d made in a week as a line cook. For a few years he served as Richard Avedon’s personal chef. But then he met a woman from a faraway place called Sebastopol and took a trip out west. “I’d never been west of 12th Avenue before,” he says.
The trip was a revelation.
Malicki went back to New York. He worked on a photo shoot for Esquire magazine. The crew was photographing shoes. It was cold, and an icy wind blew off the Hudson River. As Malicki recalls it, “I remember saying ‘What am I doing here?'”
Just like that, he knew that he was done with New York City, and promptly moved to Sebastopol with his wife-to-be.
That was 25 years ago. Moving from Manhattan to Sebastopol was a shock. “I used to go to Safeway at night and read magazines,” he says.
Malicki opened a restaurant called Truffles, and later took a job at Iron Horse Winery that lasted for 13 years. From there he bounced from one kitchen to another, opening restaurants and chefing for hire in others, and he opened a barbecue stand on Bodega Highway that’s since grown into Maxwell’s Feel Good Barbecue.
His shoebox-size Cafe Saint Rose opened in 2006 in Santa Rosa, and was a favorite of locals and visiting celebrities like writer Michael Ondaatje and filmmaker Joel Cohen. “It was very successful, and that was the problem,” Malicki says. When his landlord learned of the restaurant’s success, he drastically raised the rent. Malicki reluctantly closed in Santa Rosa and relocated to a scenic spot just west of Sebastopol, but closed 17 months later.
He did short stints (“About an hour,” he jokes) at the French Garden in Sebastopol and in Benicia before spotting an ad on Craiglist for the job at Casino. Right from the start, the old bar and the veteran chef were a perfect match. Initially, he did everything: cooked, washed dishes and served food. There’s a server now, but it’s still just Malicki in the kitchen. On Malicki’s days off or while catering, the capable Moishe Hahn-Schuman sits in; other cooks do stints in Casino, too.
Part of Casino’s appeal may be one of low expectations. Who expects to find great food among pool tables, Hamm’s beer displays and a thicket of deer trophies on the walls? That the bar serves food at all in a town of limited culinary options makes it something of an oasis. No one would begrudge the place if it just sold burgers and corn dogs, but Malicki’s rarefied dishes make it one of the West County’s star attractions. The clunk of muddy boots on the worn wooden floors and clack of pool balls only serve to heighten one’s gustatory pleasure—and Malicki’s.
“I can spend another 30 years here,” he says. “I’m still excited about it.”
Casino Bar & Grill, 17000 Bodega Hwy., Bodega. 707.876.3185.