If you're wondering why St. Roy Chef's Pub is called that and not St. Roy Gastropub, it's because owner Justin Monson thinks "gastropub" sounds like a disease. Other recently opened restaurants that are really pubs have also avoided the distinction like, well, the plague. Santa Ana's Chapter One: the modern local, the last restaurant to disavow the label, loses nothing by disassociating itself from the word. But if there were a place capable of revitalizing the now-trite gastropub term with an injection of gravitas, it would be St. Roy.
The name itself hints that Monson sets his sights higher. St. Roy is a cryptographic homage to Napa Valley, the word plucked from the first few letters of the towns St. Helena, Rutherford, Oakville and Yountville. But really, it's just what Monson is calling the upgraded bar at his 8-year-old restaurant, Vine. You discover quickly that the menu for Vine is the menu for St. Roy. The only difference being you dine at Vine, whereas you eat at St. Roy.
For the moment, everyone chooses the St. Roy side—you also should. It's a sort-of backstage pass to witness Vine's beating heart, a bar with a view of the deep fryers gurgling and sauté pans blazing. You're often sat shoulder-to-shoulder with the next customer in this claustrophobic space, saddling up at communal butcher-block tables, trying to avoid being distracted by whatever's on TV, but there's always something happening—something to look at, something to smell. You see people greeting one another with hugs and hi-how-are-yas. You spy a yet-undiscovered dish delivered to an adjacent table. You watch bartenders pour microbrews from a newly installed 10-tap system or wine from a contraption that has a series of hoses hooked up to dozens of bottles, the liquid surging in its tubes. And when you are ready to order, you anticipate greatness as you scan the blackboards for specials.
St. Roy Chef's Pub, www.stroychefspub.com. Open Tues., 5:30-11 p.m.; Wed.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Small plates, $8-$16; entres and burgers, $12-$32. Beer and wine.
One night, there were Luna oysters from a Carlsbad aquafarm, their quivering meat brisk even before the diced green-apple mignonette was spooned on top. Another night, a fried soft-shell crab was offered with curly spinach and grilled corn. When available, take St. Roy up on the soulful, creamy potato soup topped with a dollop of crème fraiche. Atop the soup floats a plank of rustic toast, hand-sliced from the same loaf as the complimentary bread that comes with a house-made bean purée.
As you nurse your beer, munch on the bar nuts, a $4 mix of candied pecans, chile-roasted filberts and spiced cashews. The pecans' shiny sugar shellacking guarantees they'll get plucked out first. Then, proceed to nibble on the excellent house-marinated olives, which need no accompaniment. Afterward, take in a salad such as the seared ahi and hearts of palm, more a staggered stack of the ingredients—including avocado, cucumber, cherry tomato—than a standard plate of roughage. Bathed in a sunny grilled-citrus-and-shallot vinaigrette, it's one of the best dishes here.
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Don't bother trying to frame other entrées in the gastropub lens: They won't fit. These aren't gimmicky tweaks, but rather fine, even outstanding, dishes. A riff on trout meunière is feather-light and as classy as at any French bistro, flanked by Blue Lake beans, fingerling potatoes, wilted frisée and tomatoes. Steamed mussels and fries hit the right notes of a classic moules frites, here with the added depth of pork thanks to thin-sliced ham from La Quercia, a boutique salumi maker out of Iowa. And then there's the very Austrian schnitzel, in which a pork steak pounded as wide and thin as a magazine meets crispy breading and spring-herbed nubs of spaetzle that look like deformed peas but chew like gnocchi.
About the only nod to an actual pub is the Wine Country burger, which arrives next to a very tall nest of fries. A roasted tomato, arugula, a smear of secret sauce and a blanket of Manchego melts and clings onto the loosely formed patty, cobbled together from an in-house, Frankenstein mix of hanger steak, brisket, flat iron and boneless short rib. The first juicy bite validates its uppity title, and the second demands a swig from an assertive glass of red. And for dessert, Monson, who used to cook at the once-mighty French 75, offers a chocolate soufflé, a dessert that all its alumni seem to wear like a badge of honor. It takes at least 20 minutes advance notice to prepare, which is just about the time it takes to agree that the term gastropub has run its course.
This review appeared in print as "The Gastropub that Ain't: You can get great food, excellent beers and top flight wines at St. Roy—just don't call it a you-know-what."