On the Line: Kai Robison of MRK|Public, Part One

Three times the work ethic
Three times the work ethic
Photo courtesy of MRK|Public

Friends, co-workers, business owners. Brothers Kai and Moriah Robison and Rayne Frey collaborated to open MRK|Public last year. An approachable spot for locals, they have a fan in previousOn the Line subject Jeff Clinard. Kai fills us in on how things got started.

Please explain your concept, and how you chose it. Well, originally we had started with the concept of doing a really small, hot sandwich shop with chef-inspired flavors. As we were looking for a location, we found that the old Love Burger (a divey, local favorite for 30 years) was available. We snatched it up and realized this space had potential to be a bigger concept. So we took everything we love: craft beer, good wine, flavor-forward food and casual/modern atmosphere to create a gastropub.

$5 craft beer-- What?!?! The $5 beer thing was an idea that our cousin/beer buyer/Saint Archer rep, Nathan Squillace, had. Having the beer at an affordable price all the time encourages people to try a wider range of styles, and makes it so there is no need to have deals or happy hour at any time. It's a deal every day.

Most frequently asked question by guests. I would have to say, "What does MRK stand for?" Simple. That's us: Moriah, Rayne and Kai. If not that, it's, "What's a banh mi?" A traditional Vietnamese sandwich.

Best culinary tip for the home cook. REST YOUR MEAT! The worst thing you can do is pull a steak off the grill and cut into it right away. All those good juices will leak out. Let it rest, people.

What's the one thing people didn't tell you about working in a restaurant? That you would rarely get to eat. And when you do, you're shoveling it down as fast as possible (laughs).

Who gets credit for those beautiful photos on your Facebook page? That would be one of our servers and resident cheerleader, Christy Rambaugh. She is awesome! The sweetest, most food and beer-excited girl ever! Plus, she writes our chalkboard menu beautifully.

Where was your most recent meal? Moriah and I ate Indian at Natraj in Laguna Beach. We had a lot of different dishes: tandoori lamb, lentils, chickpeas, a cauliflower and potato dish, naan bread stuffed with onions and cheese, mango yogurt drinks, etc. We ate a lot.

Why choose San Clemente when your cuisine is along the lines of resort dining further north? We are from here and have lived here our whole lives, on and off. We knew that if we were going to start a restaurant, we wanted it to be in San Clemente. We have all traveled and lived in other places, but we always come back to our little surf town. Between the three of us, we have lived in San Francisco, Hawaii, Austin, Brazil and traveled all over the world. That has given us a broader perspective, and I think that really influences what we do.

What is your restaurant industry experience? We have all worked at a lot of different places. But where we all came together was Tabu Grill in Laguna Beach. It was there we all learned to work together, and got to use some of the finest ingredients you can get.

As locals, what's been the response to feeding your community? It has been amazing. We have so much support here from friends and family, as well as new people that are just excited to have something unique here in town. We all come from a more fine dining background. So when we started this, we knew we wanted to make it a casual, affordable concept for the community. We wanted to make it a place where everyone could come, and not just once or twice, but on a regular basis. So far, it seems like people are getting it.

How often do you change up the menu? Are there any mainstays? Well, since we have only been open for about five months, we are just starting to change some things up. But we will change things here and there as seasons change and we get inspired. As far as mainstays, we will probably always keep the banh mi, Vietnamese sticky wings and some variation of the house burger.

Let's talk about those Thai basil mussels. We all love south east Asian flavors, especially Thai and Vietnamese. There is a freshness to their cooking, and the way they balance sweet, spicy and sour flavors. As far as our mussels go, we wanted to capture that classic, fresh Thai flavor in the simplest way possible.

Favorite meal growing up: My mom always used to make a dish we all loved called "Texas Straw Hats". I was a very picky eater as a kid, so I always looked forward to this dish. It was kind of like a chili without beans. Ground meat, onions, celery, garlic, tomato and various spices. Served with corn chips and cheddar cheese. I don't know why, but that was the one I always loved as a kid. Or Mickey Mouse pancakes.

You're making breakfast; what are you having? Just keep it classic. Good coffee, fried eggs, thick cut toast, quality bacon, potatoes and some fresh fruit. That's how you start a day.

One stereotype about your industry, and whether it's true. That chefs are mean and angry. I have seen both sides of this one. For the most part, kitchens definitely attract a different kind of person. But I have been lucky to work with some really nice chefs. But there are always some crazy ones.

Is there a dish you'd like to learn how to make? As chefs, we are always looking to learn more, eat more, use more ingredients and try new things. That is what drives us. There are so many things out there to make! With that said, I would really like to learn how to make proper Japanese ramen, and I would like to get better at baking and pastry techniques.

What would be your last meal on earth? A dozen Hog Island oysters, a REAL wagyu kobe ribeye, simply seared mid-rare with coarse salt and pepper, morel mushrooms and REAL demi glaze. And for dessert, thinly sliced jamon serrano and a cheese plate. Can I have my last meal now?!

MRK|Public is located at 1402 S El Camino Real, San Clemente, (949) 441-7621; www.mrkpublic.com.

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