Restaurant to Watch: Mess Hall
We followed chefs Tim Kolanko and Colin Murray through Liberty Public Market
At the center of Point Loma's shiny new culinary emporium Liberty Public Market is Mess Hall, the highly seasonal restaurant that boasts an ever-changing menu dictated by ingredients from fellow market vendors. We followed Executive Chef Tim Kolanko and Chef de Cuisine Colin Murray as they walked the market for the day’s menu.
Kolanko and Murray start the day at FishBone Kitchen with fishmonger Dan Nattrass. “We’re looking for a whole fish to put in the wood-fire oven,” Kolanko says. “And it’s about what he can get.” Today, that means pargo and tilefish.
The chefs are working with Pasta Design's husband-and-wife owners, Alejandro and Laura Rodriguez, to get half squid ink half semolina pasta, as well as pasta tubes to stuff with vegetables and cheese. “We’re going to need them really fresh, so we can roll and pinch them,” Kolanko (center) explains.
At Liberty Meat Shop, owner Tommy Battaglia presents a sizable tomahawk steak. “Tommy has people come up and say, ‘Can I buy that meat and have Mess Hall cook it?’” Kolanko says. “Logistically, that’s a nightmare. But because we have a unique relationship, he can say, ‘Make a reservation, tell them you want the steak, and they’ll have it ready at the restaurant.'"
"We might want a bread pudding or his cookies in a smaller size," Murray says. Francis Laureano—pastry chef for all Blue Bridge Hospitality restaurants, including Mess Hall, and brains behind the market's Crafted Baked Goods—is famous for his snickerdoodle.
Mess Hall's menu features meat and seafood, but Kolanko and Murray are just as devoted to vegetable-focused dishes. “The dishes we planned this morning completely changed when we saw the heirloom squash,” Kolanko says. “I was hesitating, because it’s early for summer squash, but look at that!”
They step into Garden Fresh's cooler for produce picks. “This is the epitome of the season right now,” Kolanko says of the fava beans and carrots. “This is what we get inspired by.”
“I think I need a soft cheese today," Kolanko says at Venissimo. "We could take that Vlaskaas.” The chefs begin tasting but know they have to limit their picks. “We get excited, but it’s like wine—cheese can get expensive!”
“I’m looking for a good finishing oil,” Kolanko mentions to Baker & Olive's Janet Gilbert. She dispenses them a sample of Coratina Gran Cru, “the best Italian oil we’ve had in five years.” Kolanko and Murray opt for the basil oil, too. “We were planning on getting just one, but now we’re getting two because the basil is so good,” Kolanko says.
What started as 10 could-be dishes has morphed into five finalized new items based on the market’s bounty. “If we have artichoke, then it’s, ‘What direction would we take it from there?'” says Kolanko, who sits down with Murray daily to sketch the menu. "It all starts with one ingredient.”
The restaurant’s unique open layout blurs the line between dining room and kitchen, patrons and chefs. “We’re breaking the fourth wall,” says Kolanko.
Mess Hall’s weekly Sunday roasts are another way the chefs are amping up the communal feel. Kolanko, who once worked as Chef de Cuisine at A.R. Valentien, was inspired by his former restaurant’s Artisan Table dinner. “This is a scaled-back version of that.” The $29, three-course feast starts with salad and charcuterie plates before a meat and seafood course, and finally, dessert. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” he says. “It’s just good, solid cooking.”
For today’s lunch, however, the chefs are hoping to stretch their customers' palates as they prepare a shrimp and mussel escabeche, with shaved fennel, arugula, and two types of vinaigrette. “We got killer mussels from Baja last week,” Kolanko says. “This is the type of dish chefs love. Any time we can get people to embrace the unfamiliar is an amazing opportunity.”
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