For most chefs, when they say eating at their restaurant is like eating at their home, they mean it metaphorically. For chef Jonny Black, a Quince standout who opens his first solo project Oct. 7, he means it literally. His family lives upstairs.
“Restaurants take up all your time. Family also requires so much of your time. So, in our mind, why not just bring them all together?” Jonny said.
While it sounds like a concept straight out of “Bob’s Burgers,” Jonny’s two kids won’t need to stuff napkin holders or refill ketchup bottles. (Although they may make appearances downstairs every now and then.) Chez Noir, the new ground-floor restaurant in Carmel-by-the-Sea co-owned by Jonny and his wife, Monique, is a bit more refined.
Inside a standalone craftsman home, the restaurant showcases hyper-local ingredients native to California, specifically the Monterey Peninsula, and Jonny prepares the seafood-centric menu using techniques from the French and Spanish traditions. Classic techniques he honed in the kitchens of Per Se, Atelier Crenn and Quince, where he was recently chef de cuisine.
The opening menu features high-concept yet irreverent dishes like chicken wings stuffed with seafood boudin, which are deep fried, then paired with Monterey abalone liver aioli. There are also chilled oysters dressed with passion fruit, lime and Marigolds; a take on Tortilla Española featuring potatoes, onions, eggs, Monterey squid and salsa verde; Spaghetti Alla Chitarra made with Santa Barbara sea urchin; and whole grilled Mt. Lassen trout served with gem lettuce cups and mussel vin blanc.
After traveling through France and Spain, often with Dominique Crenn, Jonny says, he was moved by how the coasts’ terroirs mirror that of Big Sur.
“We share a lot of the same ingredients, climate. But there’s more of a food culture there around seafood. They really take advantage of the abundance they have,” he said. “We want to champion West Coast, California fish, what we have right here in our own backyard.”
The Blacks honeymooned in Carmel-by-the-Sea years ago and were drawn back to the area over and over again for work projects, including Jonny’s last job at Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn. When he left Ranch around the pandemic, they weighed their options and decided to stay.
“In restaurant life, the baseline of hours is so high, it’s almost impossible to have space to dream,” said Monique, who worked on the hospitality side of Quince. “That was one of the hidden blessings for us the last couple of years—we were given that space.”
Carmel-by-the-Sea, like many other American seaside towns, has seen a demographics shift since the pandemic, with many young creatives relocating there from major cities. The pandemic was a reset for the Blacks too, who finally got to consider other work/life possibilities. Dream they did.
“Since I left Quince, I’ve had to take on jobs that required me to do a lot more management and oversight,” Jonny said. “I found myself carrying a clipboard more than I was holding a knife, getting pulled away from what I love most about this business. I got into cooking because I loved to cook. I loved to be in the kitchen, I love being in a small restaurant, all the dysfunction and all the fun that comes along with that.”
When they saw an opportunity to launch their own restaurant, Carmel was “the unexpected perfect fit,” Monique said. The kids loved the landscape, Monique had more free time now that the kids were old enough to be in school and Jonny already had relationships with the local craftsmen, farmers and fishermen, who supplied him with the rich bounty of the region.
“And so we feel like, at this time in our lives, if I didn’t give it a shot, I’d always be kicking myself,” Jonny said. “We have to go for it. We have to try.”
At Chez Noir, Jonny and his team do everything in-house. That includes the charcuterie, preservation, dry-aging of fish, pasta-making and baking. One of his cooks has a boat, so they harvest their own seaweed and turn it into salt. The Blacks partner with local fishermen to get underused species like rockfish, flounder, lingcod and mackerel, fish that are being caught but aren’t showing up on menus.
They also showcase nearby businesses like Monterey Abalone Company, which raises abalone right in the Bay, and California Caviar Company in Sausalito, which offers a Chez Noir private label. (Diners can add caviar to any dish, according to the opening menu, which encourages guests to “Be Fancy!”) Outside of seafood, the kitchen also highlights Koda Farms rice from the Sacramento Valley, Mangalitsa jamon, Iberia-style ham coming out of Sonoma, and “Vaca Vieja” beef from Marin, aged 60 days and cooked over charcoal.
“We want to have a restaurant that can only exist here in Carmel,” Jonny said. “It’s really reacting to our surroundings and being in the moment. And that’s what we want people to feel in the space—just be present.”
Chez Noir seats 36 in the dining room, eight at the bar and 22 in the courtyard. The design is more Parisian bistro than rustic California chic. The tables are topped with china, porcelain, silver and pretty glassware. The space utilizes antique mirrors, brass lighting, marble countertops and white oak-washed wood. Bursts of jade green, royal blue and warm yellow color the drapes, curvy leather banquettes and glazed tiles.
The wine list focuses on well-crafted Central California reds and whites, which leans in the natural direction.
“There’s refinement,” Monique said. “We want it to feel like, in a sense, like you’re at your friend’s house for an amazing dinner party and they have great taste. Familiar, yet special.”
The Blacks’ favorite restaurants, they say, serve beautiful food in beautiful settings. They’re magical and that’s what they want to present at Chez Noir as well. A family-oriented passion project, it will be a dream fulfilled.
“Monique and I are restaurant people. It’s what we’re good at; it’s all I’ve ever done,” Jonny said. “Our love of this is all we really have to pass down [to our kids]. We hope it works, because we’re all in.”