When Rose Park owner Nathan Tourtelotte opened his third location earlier this year, he also spoke of the location with which had the most potential: His 8th and Pine spot was a gorgeously laid out, much larger space that he had long hoped to turn into a bistro a la République or SQIRL. And he had hoped to achieve that with Chef Melissa Ortiz, one of the best in the city.
Nathan and I both made declarations: He said he would promise to “set Melissa free to do whatever she wants” and I, in return, said that if that is the case, “I am not singularly more happy about food to come to Long Beach as much as I am the food of Ortiz.”
Luckily, Nathan followed through and, with Ortiz now having “not a single restraint” in her own words, has introduced a slim, dialed-in dinner menu that will raise eyebrows for Long Beach’s regular patrons while absolutely delighting the city’s growing group of food explorers.
It premieres tonight.
Eschewing every single land protein—you read that right: there is not a single bit of beef, pork, chicken, lamb, duck, venison or goat to be found—and sticking solely to produce, fish, and seafood, Ortiz mixes the structure of her military background with the freedom of her travels and heart to create wonderfully SoCal-centric amalgamation of flavors and profiles that aren’t found at any other restaurant in the city.
Nothing about her food here is simple, though on the plate, it looks simple enough: A handful of base components make each dish but each of those base components are seemingly endless rides of different tastes, with a wonderful, almost continuous loop of umami connecting each.
Take, for example, her oceanic play on nduja: Typically a spreadable, spicy salume made from pork in the Calabria area of Southern Italy, Ortiz uses a seasonal fish—this round, it’s yellowtail; next up will be swordfish—that’s muddled into a cream base of Calabrian chiles and Plugrá butter.
That last part is noteworthy: Plugrá is incredibly high in butterfat—higher than most butter in the States and mimicking the butters of France by having a 82% butterfat content. (82% butterfat is required by French law in order to be called “butter;” 80% butterfat is legally required in the U.S., so to save on costs, most butter makers in the States stick to 80%. That two-percent difference can be genuinely astounding.)
The result? An extremely addicting, light-but-ultra-creamy umami bomb whose flavors are expanded when used as a spread on a miso-seaweed flatbread that Gusto exclusively makes for Rose Park. Once you’ve added a healthy dollop of nduja on the seasame-ladened flatbread, top it with Ortiz’s spicy pickled relish—a four-weeks-in-the-process garnish whose fermented Fresno chiles are a welcome bite of tart heat—and cooled with a drop of yuzu crème fraîche.
The absence of Ortiz—be it for travel in Brazil or serving our country in Afghanistan—really proves the base of her menu. A few years older from when we last saw her in a kitchen, a bit more focused, and definitively more confident, Ortiz flexes her ability to build on flavors with lengthy processes, complex finishes, and straight-forward plating.
This is exemplified in a dish that—at least if I were to guess—would be easily dismissed by a regular patron: smoked mussels. It seems simple enough but, like all her cheekily pedestrian dish names, this plate is anything but smoked mussels and smoked mussels alone, with hints of honoring her Mexican heritage while creating a dish that spans Japanese flavor profiles.
Yes, there are the stars of the dish, debearded—the process of removing the membrane they use to attach to surfaces—and cooked before being removed from their shells and marinated in a guajillo-lemongrass oil that is as earthy as it is tangy. Thick leaves of kombo—kelp leaves cooked to an al dente-like bite, sliced into fettuccine-like strips—are lathered in a ponzu laced with moritas—those are the dried counterpart of fresh jalapeños, sometimes called chipotles—and tossed with Oritz’s housemade spicy cucumbers. Add what she calls “umami crunch,” an insanely addicting combo of crispy, crunched shallots, fried garlic bits, fried chile pieces, and oil, and you have yourself a genuinely perfect, ocean-centric dish.
Another nod to her own Mexican heritage, with hints of Indian, Levantine, and Italian flavors is her—once again: cheekily pedestrian in name—clams and beans dish.
Clams and sausage or mussels and sausage is a common dish—the version at Wood & Salt is one in which I’ve recently praised—but Ortiz’s version skips the pork and instead creates a deceptive little bit she calls “shrimp chorizo.”
Unsure of the magic she imparts on these little pork impersonators but the result is wondrous: ancho and guajillo chiles tuck into the bits of shrimp as they sit in a deep, gorgeously red broth with bits of navy beans and a hefty heap of clams.
That red broth—a concoction that is made with the scraps of fish from the nduja and the shells of the shrimp of the shrimp chorizo, straddling the space between a pozole and cioppino—is layered with lime, lemongrass, and the mighty guajillo. But the real star is the fermented chile. Ortiz has a host of them doing their magic in the back—fermented Fresnos, fermented peach reapers, fermented island habaneros…—and with the addition of it, creates a harissa-like aromatic and depth that makes the dish not only distinct but unique.
When we pair Ortiz’s food with Sasha Schoen’s beautiful beverage pairing and healthy obsession with hospitality, Rose Park is shaping up to be one the most challenging (in the best way possible) restaurants.
Using largely Ambitious Ales as their beer selection—with a handful of other unique selects, including a wonderfully savory, classic German hef—and a by-the-bottle only list of natural wines, Schoen’s hopes are both high and wide.
“There’s nothing that makes me happier than seeing a table genuinely having an experience they can’t have elsewhere,’ Schoen said. “I want people to experience that—repeatedly. And at first, it’s going to be difficult: For now [because of staff restraints], we will not have full-service tables; you will order at the counter. But I can assure you, anything you need, just let me know. But hopefully people have the patience to understand that we need to our ways work upward.”
For Schoen, the move to Rose Park comes full-circle: Over a decade ago, she began managing the much-missed coffee space that was The Greenhouse (now Burger Daddy), the first place to tackle specialty coffee in Long Beach and her first introduction to Nathan and Andrew Phillips of Rose Park, when they were still delivering bags of their beans via bicycle.
Though her education is in writing and international studies, hospitality has consistently provided Schoen the happiness and warmth that she craves—and being hand-picked by Ortiz only makes the pair’s work stronger.
“We want this to be an experience that you can’t get anywhere else in Long Beach,” Schoen said. “And we’re pretty confident we have that.”
Rose Park’s food-centric space is located at 800 Pine Ave.