The guys over at Recess Room in Fountain Valley are well into their sophomore year, and it seems they are evolving into their role as a destination chef-driven restaurant and craft bar. Since opening in January 2017, owners Viet Pham and Victor Lam have been making upgrades to their popular bar and large dining patio, but the most significant upgrade to date has been in the kitchen. While new to Recess Room and a relatively new face in the Orange County food scene, this is actually a homecoming for new Executive Chef Nikko Marquez.
Marquez is a native of Cypress and an old friend of Phams. They met while Marquez was working at Blockbuster and still attending culinary school. The two maintained a friendship, staying connected over the years by a common love for food. Pham was able to watch Marquez’s growth throughout his career, even traveling to Portland where Marquez most recently worked at Superbite, now Bistro Anges, owned by Ox chef and owners Greg and Gabrielle Denton. Upon hearing his old friend was planning on returning to Southern California, Pham naturally reached out to Marquez to take the helm of their kitchen.
I met Chef Nikko through mutual friends a few years back when he was sous chef at Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles. After working outside of Orange County for so long, I asked him how it feels to be cooking with home court advantage.
“It’s nice to walk into the dining room and see old friends and family that come by. But if it weren’t for those guys,” he says with a head nod toward the kitchen, “I wouldn’t be able to do anything.”
He’s talking about his two sous chefs, Brian Manoto and Jeremy Barnett who are both longtime friends and colleagues of Marquez. He insists that the menu is a culmination of all of their experiences and backgrounds. He calls it “Southern California-style cuisine, the way we would want to eat it.”
The Bar Bites menu, written on a chalkboard behind the bar, is designed to be what cooks lovingly call “mise en place meals.” It’s the kind of food cooks put together quickly with what is available and eaten in the middle of a shift. Although these meals never make their way onto a menu, they bring the staff together and encourages conversation and creativity.
The carnitas taco is a considerable favorite. With the fork-tender pork cheek wrapped in grilled Roti, it’s explosive with flavor and texture and more filling than one would expect. Another must-try is the shrimp banh mi. If a shrimp po’ boy and fish sauce hot wings had a baby, it would be this sandwich. Marquez fries the shrimp until crispy, then covers them with the Vietnamese-style wing sauce before serving them on top of a baguette with pickled vegetables.
More changes to the dinner menu will come seasonally. The grilled nectarine salad is the perfect homage to the bounties of summer, while the roasted heirloom eggplants look forward to fall comforts, served with romanesco, crispy pig ears and bagoong vinaigrette. Marquez admitted that this dish “isn’t for everybody.” And while that may be true, it is a dish that will tell you a lot about the person making it.
The heirloom baby eggplants from the market speak of Marquez’s food philosophy while the pig ears and bagoong (a pungent and salty Filipino paste made from dried shrimp) vinaigrette show creativity and technique all the while giving us a glimpse into his background. In this dish Chef Nikko bravely shares with the home crowd the person he was, where that person has been, and what to expect in the future.
After chatting it up with Chefs Nikko and Brian, and owners Pham and Victor Nguyen, I mentioned that there was a common theme around Recess Room of “returning to where it all began,” a do-over of sorts and asked them what they thought of it.
Manoto simply answered, “Sometimes you need to leave to get focus. And then you come back, and you’re ready.” therecessroom.com