Gargantua is a tiny pop-up restaurant that aims to exceed expectations

By Richard Foss

Chef Nick Barainca is changing up the menu at Gargantua every week
Photo by Darin Rios

Nick Barainca took 14 years to travel two blocks. He graduated from the culinary program at the Art Institute in Santa Monica in 2003, and this year he opened a pop-up restaurant called Gargantua — a dinner operation inside OP Café, just down the way from the school’s kitchen.

A native of the Antelope Valley town of Lancaster — “not much gastronomy going on there,” he commented wryly — Barainca moved here to get serious about cooking, and after graduation he worked at high-end restaurants such as Melisse and Röckenwagner before getting a job at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. The chain was happy with his work and sent him to their hotel restaurant in Santa Barbara, where he found a very different culinary scene.

“Santa Barbara is about 10 years behind L.A.,” he said. “It was always rather perplexing to me, because in this area where so much produce was coming from, very few people were trying to use it with ambition.”

From there he moved to the historic Mattei’s Tavern in Los Olivos in the nearby Santa Ynez wine country (an ambitious take on regional food that struggled in a town of only 1,100 people) and helped open Liaison restaurant in Hollywood (more nightlife than epicurean) before jumping into Gargantua with both feet.

 

Gargantua was a giant in a 16th-century comic novel, but as I remember he was rather whimsical and irresponsible. Why the name?

To me it somehow symbolizes putting your heart into something not knowing what will happen, to strive for something that’s new and creative but captures a little familiarity. It’s also a set of big ideas in a small café that is serving omelets and burgers in the morning and afternoon. It’s a total juxtaposition, a pleasant surprise. I like it, there’s some mystery about it. It allows a diner to make up their own reason for the name, so we don’t ever need to stop evolving.

 

What exactly are you doing there?

We’re serving a five-course tasting menu at a very affordable price of $47 plus tax, which comes out to about $52 per person — something to break the monotony of the restaurant experience without emptying your wallet. The menu changes week in and week out; there’s some premeditated stuff, but we challenge ourselves all the time. The best reaction that I get is from guests who ask, ‘Why are you here in this little 25-person space?’ They’re surprised about this level of food and service. It’s unexpected and out of the blue, and we cherish that reaction so much.

 

So it’s one restaurant by day, an entirely different one by night. Is this a test of the concept?

That’s what this is for, figuring out what we have and if it’s sustainable. The pop-up concept gives us flexibility to try our ideas without the astronomical capital requirements of building a restaurant from scratch. You’re testing the market, gaining loyalty, building a clientele base that will follow you at a later point. People like to be on the inside track when it comes to information. They like to have the tip about a new place. At the same time there’s a level of intrigue; you’re building a story and people know there’s something else coming beyond this.

 

Is there always?

Well, no. There are some pop-ups that feel like they’re done on a whim, with no big picture or endgame. These last a week or two and are sometimes vanity projects. The more serious pop-ups are turning into so-called residencies — the term lets people know you’re going to be around for a while and you’re serious. A residency expresses that there’s something beyond the day-to-day and something else to look forward to. What you call it depends on what your goal is.

 

Doesn’t a pop-up have a problem buying food, since suppliers may not want to give credit to a short term operation that doesn’t own the building?

That’s a case-by-case thing, and I’m sure it’s easier for some operators than others. I’ve worked with a lot of great purveyors and established relationships of trust. For the most part we’re doing things ourselves, doing big shop days at the farmers market. It’s about getting your hands on the product and talking to people, communicating more than you would within a big operation. It’s easy to pick up the phone, but you don’t become more well-versed in your ingredients.

 

Presumably your plan is to use this restaurant to show off for potential investors. Found any yet?

There have been some interested parties, and a lot of good has come from it so far. We’re telling our story, showing what we’re doing here and telling how far it can go, and some people seem interested in the whole package. As for how long we’ll do this, I don’t see it being open past 2018 — unless perhaps it’s while we’re building a place of our own, but that’s me talking right now. Things could change.

 

Gargantua is open from 6:30 to 11 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays.

Gargantua 3117 Ocean Park Blvd., Santa Monica (310) 452-5720 gargantua.la

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